THE TEN BEST PRIVATE EYE MOVIES
Ten rainy day whodunits that have stood the test of time.
By Shaun Costello
Just exactly who was the best cinematic Private Eye, anyway? For my money, Phillip Marlowe is tough to beat, even though he was beaten up fairly often, staggering to his feet after being cold-cocked with a heavy object (usually a gun butt) held in the hand of a beguiling femme fatale who had gotten the drop on him. Marlowe leads the chase in three of the titles I’m listing here, and is played by three different actors. Two of these films were adapted from the same book, Raymond Chandler’s Farewell My Lovely. The first, Murder My Sweet (1944) was renamed as box office strategy, which I suppose worked, to a degree. And, the 1975 remake with the original Farewell My Lovely title intact. The third Marlowe caper, Howard Hawks’ The Big Sleep, had maybe the greatest writing team ever assembled, even though the audience had a tough time figuring out what, in God’s name, this movie was about. Sam Spade, a Dashiell Hammett creation, and a Marlowe contemporary is of course, the chief sleuth in The Maltese Falcon, which has Bogie and Huston and the fabulous Warner Bothers repertory company, and lines like, “You’re good. You’re very good”.
But, what about Sherlock Holmes, Hercule Poirot, Nick and Nora Charles and their clue-finding pup Asta, Mike Hammer, Jake Gittes – snappy snoops all; tough, relentless, with a curiosity that won’t quit. These guys will stop at nothing in getting to the bottom of things, sorting out the details, finding out exactly who killed whom, and why.
In alphabetical order:
The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes
Alfred L. Werker 1939
The best of the Basil Rathbone/Nigel Bruce Holmes/Watson capers, from Fox and Darryl Zanuck. Holmes and Watson again do battle with that criminal genius, Professor Moriarty, nicely played here by George Zucco. And, this one’s got the fabulous Ida Lupino to add a bit of heat.
Moriarty has a plan to make off with the Crown Jewels, but Holmes stands in his way. Juicy Holmesian dialogue like:
Holmes, “You’ve a magnificent brain, Moriarty. I admire it. I admire it so much I’d like to present it pickled in alcohol to the London Medical Society.”
Moriarty, “That would make an interesting exhibit. Holmes, you’ve only now barely missed sending me to the gallows. You’re the one man in England clever enough to defeat me. The situation has become impossible.”
Holmes, “Have you any suggestions?”
Moriarty, “I’m going to break you Holmes. I’m going to bring off right under your nose the most incredible crime of the century, and you’ll never suspect it until it’s too late. That will be the end of you Mr. Sherlock Holmes. And when I’ve beaten and ruined you then I can retire in peace. I’d like to retire; crime no longer amuses me. I’d like to devote my remaining years to abstract science.”
Crafty direction by Alfred Werker, and a solid screenplay by Edwin Blum and William Drake. And, lovely black and white cinematography by Leon Shamroy.
The Big Sleep
Howard Hawks 1946
Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe finds himself in a nest of vipers, as usual, in this brilliant, if a bit confusing, film noir. Howard Hawks, probably Hollywood’s best dialogue director, has
a field day, juggling juicy lingo penned by an incredible writing team that included William Faulkner, Leigh Brackett, Jules Furthman, and Hawks himself. The problem is, the story makes no sense. But, who cares, with Bogie as Marlowe, and Betty Bacall as a devious femme fatale. The now-famous jockey/horse-Bogie/Betty scene, filled with hilarious sexual innuendo, was added to the troubled production over a year later to spice things up. A solid cast, including a surprisingly sprite Dorothy Malone, makes this movie work, even if you may have trouble understanding what’s going on. Nice black and white lensing by Sidney Hickox, and a haunting, if sometimes abrupt, musical score by Max Steiner. I’ve seen this picture an embarrassing number of times, but for you, once should be enough – but see it!
Best scene: Bogie and Malone in the book store.
Roman Polanski 1974
“C’mon Jake, it’s Chinatown”, pleads Gittes’s friend, attempting to drag him away from the horrific car scene at the very end of the film. “Chinatown” means what you think, but it’s also an old expression meaning crazy, upside-down, or meshuganah – something best left alone. This is may be the best period film ever
made, and Polanski does it without the usual cheap tricks like historical references. He does it instead, with a fabulous cast, John Alonzo’s scorched cinematography, Jerry Goldsmith’s luscious score, Anthea Sylbert’s glamorous costumes, and Robert Towne’s Oscar winning screenplay. It’s all about water – Los Angeles doesn’t have any. And the Hollis Mulwray character is based on William Mulholland, the brilliant head of LA’s water department, who turned this parched patch of Southern California into the metropolis it was to become.
Jack Nicholson, as Jake Gittes, a private eye who makes a living on matrimonial cases, is sucked into a noirish whirlpool, where virtually nothing is as it seems. Polanski does a masterful job of slowing down Nicholson’s usually manic delivery, turning the performance into something more sensual and cunning. Faye Dunawaye is elegantly deceitful, and Polanski himself, plays a murderous knife wielding midget. But it’s John Huston’s Noah Cross that steals the show.
One of my all-time fave films. If anyone reading this hasn’t seen it, you’ll probably find a disc at your local library. Delicious sleuthing.
Best scene: Anything with John Huston, and “My sister – my daughter, my sister-my daughter, my sister AND my daughter.”
Farewell My Lovely
Dick Richards 1975
This is the third and, in my opinion, best movie made from Raymond Chandler’s 1940 novel. As I’ve previously stated, Philip Marlowe is my favorite Private Eye and, although Bogie was near-perfect in The Big Sleep, Robert Mitchum is even better, as a big, hulking Marlowe, who seems constantly recovering from a whack on the noggin, or the woozy effect of the knock-out drops that some swell dame slipped in his drink. Unlike Polanski’s Chinatown, director Dick Richards uses the historical reference of Joe Dimaggio’s 57 game hitting streak throughout the movie to maintain a feel for 1940 period. OK, so it’s a gimmick, but a forgivable one – it works. Come to think of it, just about everything in this movie works. Great Chandler narration like, “I’d hardly reached the corner, when a hand so big I could of sat in it, landed on my shoulder”. Besides a wonderfully effective Mitchum, Charlotte Rampling provides the heat in a cast rounded out by John Ireland and Sylvia Miles. There’s even a quick glimpse of Sly Stallone in one of his first movie roles. Dark and sultry lensing, once again by John Alonzo, and a delicious musical score by David Shire make this recreation of 1940 Los Angeles believable. If you can find a DVD of this – pounce.
Kiss Me Deadly
Robert Aldrich 1955
No more Mr. Nice Guy – not with Mickey Spillane’s brutal, tough, take-no-prisoners Mike Hammer on the case, and in this case, the case is a box – Pandora’s Box, filled with nuclear material ready to go off. Ah, the Fifties, when every right-thinking American had the A-Bomb on his mind, 24 hours a day. An apocalyptic murder mystery? You bet, and Mike Hammer’s the right guy to put the pieces together. A nice turn here by Ralph Meeker, as the Private Eye with an attitude problem. And the movie debuts of Cloris Leachman, and Maxine Cooper
On a lonely country road, Hammer gives a ride to Christina (Cloris Leachman), an attractive hitchhiker wearing nothing but a trench coat. She has escaped from a nearby mental institution. Thugs waylay them and Hammer awakens in some unknown location where he hears Christina screaming and being tortured to death. The thugs then push Hammer’s car off a cliff with Christina’s body and an unconscious Hammer inside. Hammer next awakens in a hospital with Velda (Maxine Copper) at his bedside. He decides to pursue the case, both for vengeance and because, “She (Christina) must be connected with something big”.
“The great whatsit”, as Velda calls it, at the center of Hammer’s quest, is a small, mysterious valise that is hot to the touch and contains a dangerous, glowing substance. It represents, of course, the 1950s Cold War fear and nuclear paranoia about the atomic bomb that was all the rage back then.
A dark, noirish nightmare, deftly handled by director Aldrich. Murky, night time Los Angeles locations, made to shine by cinematographer Ernst Laszlo. This is a low budget ($400,000), no nonsense, first rate film noir, with a game cast, and a savvy director. A film not to miss.
Otto Preminger 1944
OK, I know, I know – it’s not a private eye movie, it’s a cop caper, but it’s Laura, the one and only, and this is MY list so it’s just tough. We have to get past this. Good.
A detective (Dana Andrews) investigating the grisly murder of a famous actress (Gene Tierney) falls in love with her painting. The more he hears about her, the deeper his spell. (I’d do the same thing if that music followed me around all the time) Everyone Andrews interviews seem to be in love with her too. Venomous gossip columnist Waldo Lydecker (Clifton Webb) seems to be the late Laura’s biggest booster. Her grief stricken fiancé Shelby (Vincent Price) is beside himself. Just who would kill such a beloved creature? Just when the audience settles in to accepting lovely Laura’s demise, plot twist of plot twists, the door to her apartment opens, and in walks, you guessed it, Laura, live and lovelier than ever. Andrews, who had fallen asleep on the couch under Laura’s portrait, is awaked to find his obsession, alive and kicking, and wondering what this stranger is doing in her apartment. As Andrews adjusts to this new situation, he finds the living Laura to be everything he’d hoped. But, who was the disfigured corpse, who everyone mistook for Laura? It turns out that Lydecker’s obsession with our leading lady got the better of him. If he couldn’t have her, he’d kill her instead. But he shot the wrong woman, and she was too disfigured to identify, so everyone assumed it was Laura’s body. A living Laura is just too much for Lydecker to accept, so he tries once again to kill her. Andrews intercedes, shooting the murderous Lydecker in the knick of time. As Waldo lies dying on Laura’s carpet, and of course under the portrait, his last words are, “Goodbye. Laura. Goodbye, my love.”
It sounds pretty silly, but it works. Tierney is simply too beautiful to believe, and a game cast does wonders with this material. But, maybe the most important element, the glue that binds this classic together, is David Raskin’s haunting, memorable musical score – one of the real champs. I wonder what happened to the portrait?
The Maltese Falcon
John Huston 1941
This 1941 Warner Brothers release is the third movie version of Dashiell Hammett’s novel. The first, released in 1931, starred Ricardo Cortez as Sam Spade, while the second, Satan Met a Lady, was a loose adaptation that was a bit more comedic. It was released in 1936, with Warren William, and a very young Bette Davis in the leading roles. Warner Brothers had been prevented from re-releasing the 1931 version by the Hays Office censors, because of its “lewd” content, so they went into production in 1941, on a new, cleaned up version, which is the beauty we all know and love.
First-time director John Huston wanted Bogie to play Sam Spade, but producer Hal Wallis wanted veteran leading man George Raft, who rejected it because he didn’t want to work with a first-time director. Raft also turned down the lead in Raoul Walsh’s “High Sierra”, the film that launched Bogie’s career as a leading man.
So, is The Maltese Falcon the ultimate private eye caper? You be the judge, but if it’s not, then it’s certainly close. Warner’s had the best ensemble of character actors in Hollywood, and most of them strut their stuff here. Beyond Bogey and Mary Astor, there’s Peter Lorre as Joel Cairo, Sidney Greenstreet as Gutman, Barton MacClane and Ward Bond as Spade’s detective buddies, and Lee Patrick as Effie, who Spade addresses as “Precious” and “Darlin”. Huston even hired his father Walter, to play the ship’s Captain.
Whose got the bird, is the game played here. What exactly IS this Maltese Falcon, anyway? And why is it worth so many murders? Astor wants it, Greenstreet wants it, Lorre wants it, and the body count is mounting. Juicy, nest of vipers stuff here, and Huston is up to the task of getting the most out of this remarkable cast. A solid, tangy screenplay, written by the first-time director, nice dark lensing by Arthur Edeson, and a warm musical score by Arthur Deutsch. A bird for all seasons.
“You’re good. You’re very good”, say’s Bogie to Astor, and who among us could argue?
Murder, My Sweet
Edward Dmytryk 1944
This is the second movie made from Raymond Chandler’s Farewell My Lovely novel, and has a very different feel from the 1975, and third remake, above. The powers that be at RKO thought that changing the title to Murder, My Sweet would add some zip the film’s box office. Who knows, but the film did well.
Casting crooner Dick Powell in the Marlowe role was a gamble, but he’s an effective, if different gumshoe. With a small budget to work with, and 1944’s censorship problems to overcome, Dmytryk does an admirable job creating a dark, violent world for Marlowe and his cronies to inhabit. Nice turns by Claire Trevor, Anne Shirley, and Otto Kruger. And, solid black and white camerawork by Harry Wild, plus a low-key musical score by Roy Webb rounds out the production. Powell is surprising here, and worth a look. Like Alec Guinness as George Smiley, when I read Chandler, I hear Mitchum’s voice, but Powell gives us an alternative.
Murder on the Orient Express
Sidney Lumet 1974
Agatha Chistie had been quite displeased with some film adaptations of her works made in the 1960s, and accordingly, was unwilling to sell any more film rights. When Nat Cohen, chairman of EMI Films, and producer John Brabourne attempted to get her approval for this film, they felt it necessary to have Lord Mountbatten of Burma (of the British Royal Family and also Brabourne’s father-in-law) help them broach the subject.
In the end, according to Christie’s husband Max Mallowan, “Agatha herself has always been allergic to the adaptation of her books by the cinema, but was persuaded to give a rather grudging appreciation to this one.” Christie’s biographer, Gwen Robyns, quoted her as saying, “It was well made except for one mistake. It was Albert Finney, as my detective Hercule Poirot. I wrote that he had the finest moustache in England — and he didn’t in the film. I thought that a pity — why shouldn’t he?”
Hey, Finney’s waxed lip-rug worked for me, but so did everything else in this dazzling film. I’m not the biggest fan of star vehicles, but Sidney Lumet somehow coaxed, cajoled, persuaded, and probably black-mailed this extraordinary ensemble of show business luminaries into one remarkable performance after another. Finney is a fastidious, almost effeminate Poirot, surrounded by a passenger list that includes (I’m going to name them all because it’s just such an amazing group) Lauren Bacall, Sean Connery, Ingrid Bergman, Michael York, Vanessa Redgrave, Jacqueline Bisset, Richard Widmark, John Gielgud, Anthony Perkins, Martin Balsam, Rachel Roberts, Wendy Hiller, Denis Quilley, Colin Blakely, Jean-Pierre Cassel, and George Coulouris. And, their performances are all uniquely effective, and totally entertaining.
A complex Agatha Christie mystery, in the hands of a neurotic, self-involved detective, on the world’s greatest train, with a trainload of odd characters as suspects. Top notch lensing here by the masterful Geoffrey Unsworth, a lovely, waltzy score by Richard Rodney Bennett, and Lumet’s crafty direction make this memorable.
A throaty Finney, “Touch notheeeeeeng”
John Gielgud as a British valet, “It all started in a fracas in the mess, over a desert called “Spotted Dick”
Igrid Bergman as a Swedish missionary to Africa, “I vont to, um, help little brown babies, who, um, are less fortunate than, um, myself”
The Thin Man
W. S. Van Dyke 1934
Dashiell Hammett’s crafty couple Nick and Nora Charles are on the case here, in the original of, what would become, a series of detective capers. They’ve even got a snoopy, clue-fetching dog, Asta – played by a wire haired fox terrier named Skippy. Nick (William Powell), a retired detective, and his wife Nora (Myrna Loy) are attempting to settle in to retirement when the disappearance of a friend pulls him back into professional snooping. Nick decides he’ll solve the case, much to the amusement of his socialite wife. The dead bodies, and empty martini glasses pile up, as an ever-tipsy Nick and Nora, endlessly clever banter at the ready, roll up their sleeves, along with their pup, and do some slippery sleuthing.
All of the suspects are invited to a hilarious dinner party, where Nick and Nora, in a series of brilliant, if tipsy, deductions, solve the mystery. Clever dialogue, written by Albert Hackett and Frances Goodrich, and deftly delivered by two pros, drives this unique, comedic mystery. Sparkling black and white lensing by James Wong Howe, and strong ensemble work by Metro’s talent pool make this a movie not to miss. Funny doings.
© 2011 Shaun Costello
She had breasts the size of basketballs.
By Shaun Costello
This story is excerpted from my childhood memoir:
THE LAST TIME I SAW JESUS
Surviving God and Elvis in the time of ‘Duck and Cover’
My new friend Jimmy’s family had recently moved to the Gardens from Brooklyn. His father was a famous theatrical photographer who took pictures of movie stars. They lived in an enormous Tudor house on Greenway South, one on the nicest streets in the Gardens where I began to spend a great deal of time. One day Jimmy asked me if I had ever touched a breast. Other than the pictures I saw of Eddie Mann’s mom, I had never even seen one. He told me that he had touched a breast, and if I was interested, he could arrange for me to touch one too. Jimmy had a neighbor named Salvatore, who lived just down the street, and Salvatore’s family had a black maid named Jessie who, for fifty cents would let you fondle her breasts for five minutes. “And they’re really big too”, Jimmy added. This was a shocking revelation. Breasts. Actual breasts. You could touch them and even kiss them, and all for fifty cents. I was nervous but game, and Jimmy made the arrangements.
“What do you do with them?”, I asked. “Anything you want”, said Jimmy. “But why do I want to touch them?” I’m nervous now. “Because they’re beasts, stupid”.
Salvatore lived in a big brick house just down the street from Jimmy. Jessie, the maid lived in a room over the garage, and Salvatore, with Dolphy Maggiore in tow, met us outside. We hid our bikes in the bushes behind the house. Salvatore was very concerned that everyone had their money in their hands because Jessie could get ornery and make a fuss. As Salvatore opened the outside door to the stairway that led to Jessie’s room there was a horrible smell, something I had never smelled before, and it became worse as we climbed the stairs. A smell of something burning. A pungent, rancid smell. Salvatore knocked on the door. “Who?”, came from the other side. “It’s me”, said Salvatore. “Well c’mon honey, I ain’t got all day”. The door opened, and inside, sitting in front of a large mirror, applying hot irons to straighten her hair, was the biggest, fattest black woman I had ever seen. She spoke to us through the mirror. “You chilluns got my jingle?” she asked. Salvatore made a gesture that suggested giving her the money, so we did. At this point she let the robe she was wearing slip to her waste revealing huge brown breasts the size of basketballs, to the amazement and delight of the white chilluns. “C’mon now, don’t be shy. You got five minutes. Love’m up. C’mon now, love’m up”. With hesitation, fearing the unknown but mesmerized by the possibilities, the little fingers of the white chilluns
reached for the huge, soft, brown basketballs, while Jessie applied the hot irons to her singed hair, creating an unbearable smell, and Symphony Sid’s radio theme song wafted through the smoke, and all I could think of was how I could tell this in confession on Saturday.
© 2011 Shaun Costello
IN SHERMAN’S GARAGE
She Looked So Peaceful
By Shaun Costello
Excerpted from the manuscript of my childhood memoir:
THE LAST TIME I SAW JESUS
Surviving God and Elvis in the time of ‘Duck and Cover’
The Kew Forest School was located right on the border between the Forest Hills Gardens, and Kew Gardens, the next community to the East. Their student body was made up of a pretty even smattering of Protestants and Jews, with a few recovering Catholics thrown in for good measure. It was a small, secular, private school, attended by students from all over the borough of Queens. My friend Jimmy went there, and the Bullock twins, the Baxter brothers, Jeff McGann, Frank Sperandeo, and several other kids I knew from the Gardens. It was the kind of institution that was completely outside my experience. There was no hitting, no statues with internal organs showing, no threats, no Sousa marches, no praying, no music room/punishment chamber, and no promise of the eternal agony of roasting in the fires of hell for the egregious crime of talking on line. I don’t think they even had a line. A very mysterious place.
Knowing their route home from school, I would sometimes intercept Stuart and Stephen Bullock, and the three of us would cruise the Gardens on our bikes for a while before winding up at their house for a snack. I liked the Bullocks. They were my size, had the same coloring, were totally unchallenging, and were even worse at sports than I was. Sometimes it was comforting to wallow in the company of compatible mediocrity. My friend Jimmy, on the other hand, who was a constant mental challenge, was good at everything. He was the best natural athlete I had ever seen, the best tennis player his age in the borough. The first time he ever picked up a basketball in his life I saw him make six shots in a row from the foul line. Six shots. It took me a year of daily practice before I even came close to that. He was just better than I was at everything, and probably always would be. He was my best friend, but sometimes I needed a short respite from constantly coming in second, and the Bullock twins were just what the Doctor ordered. The boys were funny, their parents were welcoming and friendly, and the whole after school experience at their house was pretty positive. When it was time for me to return home, we said our good-byes, and made plans for a repeat performance the next day.
It was about a five-minute bike ride from their house to mine, and riding a bicycle around the Gardens was one of the best things about living there. There was very little traffic, and after a while you got to know most of the residents, so that people would wave to you as you cruised by. After collecting waves from Mrs. Watson, and Doctor Kauer, I passed by Sherman Becker’s house, and there was old Sherm, sitting on a bench next to his garage. The word on Sherman Becker was that he was some kind of genius. He went to a special school in Manhattan for kids with extremely high IQ’s and, although a bit strange, he was a nice enough kid to be around. Sometimes in the middle of a sentence Sherman would drift off to some place far away, and just stare at nothing that was visible to anyone else. I never saw it, but kids told me than Sherman had seizures, where his whole body would shake, and he would fall on the floor and try to swallow his tongue. He had an illness called Epilepsy, and had to take medication that sometimes made him moody. “Hey Sherm”, I yelled, as I cruised by, but he didn’t seem to notice me, and I continued on down the street. After a few blocks I stopped. Something was wrong. Sherman looked like he was doing one of his, “staring into oblivion” routines, and if his parents weren’t home maybe it was dangerous, so I turned abound and headed back to his house.
He was sitting on the bench next to his garage, and just staring into space. I had seen him do this many times and, sooner or later, he would just snap out of it. I tried talking with him, but got no response. Sherman was somewhere far away, and I’m sure he had no idea that I was even there. It was at this point that I became aware of a noise. A humming, mechanical sound, like a car motor, but very quiet, like it was far away. But it wasn’t far away. It was in Sherm’s garage, and with the doors closed you could hardly hear it. The Sisters had shown us safety films at school about the dangers of running a car inside a garage. There was some kind of gas that put you to sleep, and you never woke up. So the logical thing seemed to be for me to open the garage doors and somehow turn the car off. I opened both of the large front doors, and the smoke inside was a silvery color, and had a gasoline smell. There was a small back door to the building so I ran around and opened it, thinking that the breeze would blow the poisonous fumes from the garage.
I stood there, waiting for the fumes to clear so that I could somehow shut the car off, when I saw it. There was something or someone in the car, behind the steering wheel. I froze. As the breeze blew the silver smoke past me I could see that it was a person. All I knew was that I had to turn the car off, so I covered my nose and mouth and ran for the front door on the driver’s side. I opened the door to reach for the keys when I came face to face with Mrs. Becker. I gasped and flew backwards, crashing into the garage wall. My lungs were expanding and contracting with such force that I could hear my breath over the din of the motor, and I could barely see through the tears. I was violently crying, not from sadness, but from shock and fear. I had to turn that car off, no matter what, so I opened the door again and reached across Mrs. Becker’s lap and fumbled with key, which was on the right of the steering column. Doing this bought my face inches from hers, and my whole body was trembling so violently that I couldn’t seem to turn the key. But then I did, and the motor stopped, and I was still only inches from Mrs. Becker, and I could hear myself gasping for air. I wanted to say something to her. Maybe she was only asleep. She looked so peaceful. But my mouth wouldn’t move. The words wouldn’t come. Maybe she would open her eyes, and stretch her arms the way people do when they wake up, and look down at me and invite me to dinner. But she didn’t. She didn’t move. I realized that Sherm was still outside so I backed slowly out of the garage, never taking my eyes off Mrs. Becker.
Sherm hadn’t moved a muscle. His mind was occupying another world altogether, either because be was steeped in the denial of this horrible event, or because that’s just what his mind sometimes did. There was no 911 back in the fifties. Emergencies were reported to the telephone operator, who then forwarded the information to the appropriate authorities, so I dialed “O”. When she answered I said that my name was Sherman Becker, told her the address, and that there had been a terrible accident, and I hung up. Outside I tried to communicate with Sherm, but had no success. He had no idea that I was there. I had done what I could do. I had tuned off the motor, and reported the tragedy, and the best thing for me to do was to get out of there before the police came. No one would ever know that I had been there. They would simply assume that Sherman turned off the car motor, called the operator, and then flipped out, which was pretty understandable under the circumstances. I just didn’t want to be involved in this.
I raced toward home as fast my legs could peddle, but after a while I came to a stop, dropped my bike, sat down on the curb and started sobbing, completely overwhelmed by the events of the past few minutes. Or was it longer? I had lost track of time. My lungs seemed near exploding, my breath gushing in and out, wheezing like an asthmatic gasping for air. I had seen dead people before on Wayne Baxter’s cadaver tour, but this was different. I knew Mrs. Becker. She had always been nice to me, and now she was dead. She wanted to be dead so she closed her garage doors, slid behind the wheel, turned on the motor, fell asleep, and then died, just like in the safety film we saw in school. But she didn’t look dead. Not like the translucent cadavers at the Fox Funeral Home. She looked like she was asleep. She looked so peaceful.
© 2009 Shaun Costello
Drowning Satan with Holy Water-boarding
By Shaun Costello
This story is excerpted from the manuscript of my childhood memoir;
“The Last Time I Saw Jesus”
Surviving God and Elvis in the time of ‘Duck and Cover’
Children, like sharks with blood in the water, or wild dogs who smell fear, can spot weakness a mile away, and will bide their time until the moment is right to pounce. Sister Lenore showed up one day at Our Lady Queen of Martyrs, and became our teacher. She replaced Sister Saint Gerald, who was ill and had to be sent to convalesce wherever nuns went to do that sort of thing. Nuns never talked about themselves so, other than being our teachers, having incredibly clean fingernails, wearing rimless spectacles, enjoying hitting children with inanimate objects, and seldom smiling, we knew little about them. We knew that their order, The Sisters of the Immaculate Conception, came from Scranton Pennsylvania, but that’s all. I’m not even sure how we knew that, but somehow we did. So when Sister Lenore showed up that morning, the occasion was ripe for supposition.
Maybe she had been a missionary in darkest Africa, and was laid low with jungle fever, to be sent back to the States as a teacher. Maybe she toiled for many years in a convent dedicated to the glory of cleaning the toilets of the poor, and as a reward for always producing the cleanest bowl she was sent to our wonderful Parish. Maybe she worked as the personal assistant to the Pope himself, right there in Rome, but was caught with her fingers in the poor box, and was sent to teach at our school as punishment for her sins. We’d never really know for sure, but it was fun to pretend.
Anyway, here she was, so we’d just have to make the best of it. She seemed nice enough. Certainly nicer than that cranky Sister Saint Gerald, who was always coughing into a handkerchief, and swatting kids on the hands with rulers. She seemed friendly, eager to please, even helpful, but something was wrong. It was hard to put your finger on just what, but something was wrong with Sister Lenore.
The exorcisms began when, one morning, we found a Holy Water Fountain just inside the door to our classroom. Sister instructed us to dip our fingers in the sacred waters and cross ourselves before entering the classroom, a common practice when entering or leaving a church. She told us that little children have tiny demons inside them that cause bad behavior, and demons just could not abide the sacred, soul-cleansing waters. This level of demon control lasted for only a few weeks, before she began sprinkling Holy Water directly from a bottle onto the heads of the unruly little perps, whose behavioral irregularities were obviously a direct result of Satanic possession.
During playground conversations over the next few weeks among the core group of class troublemakers, of which I was certainly a part, we came to the conclusion that the woman was a fruitcake, and if pushed far enough, she was bound to crack. Since we knew that she was the only nun in the school who sprinkled water on misbehaving kids rather than swatting them with yardsticks, we figured it was safe to go on the attack.
So it began. Spitball wars, paper plane dog fights, strange messages from Satan that somehow wound up on the blackboard, demonic drawings left in her desk drawers, and the odd behavior of Jim Freeny, the class arch-criminal, whose whole body sometimes shook as a direct result of Satanic possession. For our new teacher, this was the beginning of the end. Sister would walk up and down the aisles spraying her students with Holy Water chanting, “You’re possessed, possessed by devils, possessed by Satan, possessed, possessed. It started as a muffled giggle, but Jim Freeny started laughing and couldn’t seem to stop. The more he laughed, the wetter he became, as sister had singled him out as Satan’s host. She kept dousing him with the sacred fluids, and the wetter he got the louder he laughed, and the more she kept screaming at the devil to leave this child, until finally, frustrated to a point of holy rage, she cold-cocked Freeny with the Holy Water bottle.
So, Sister Lenore stood above Jim Freeny’s unconscious form, now lying in the aisle next to his desk, as fifty-nine little mouths silently hung open, stunned at what they had just witnessed, and wondering what would happen next, and she began to scream. She screamed out the classroom door, and screamed down the stairwell, and screamed all the way back to the convent, intensely watched by fifty nine sets of little eyes pressed against the classroom windows. Freeny was taken to the hospital with a concussion, and never admitted whether he was really unconscious, or just pretending, a subject of discussion for years afterward. The next day someone saw Sister Lenore, suitcase in hand, being helped into a sedan with Pennsylvania license plates. She was never seen again. Maybe she should have stayed in Africa. Accidentally wondering into a pride of lions had to be safer than teaching fourth grade at Our Lady Queen of Martyrs.
© 2009 Shaun Costello
THE THIRD HAND
by Shaun Costello
Excerpted from the “Seventies” manuscript:
Sex, Gangsters, and Deception in the time of ‘Groovy’
By the middle of 1974, my time was pretty evenly divided between CBS Sports, and Star Distributors, the porn unit of the Gambino Crime Family. Out in Hunterdon County, my girlfriend Jane had quickly outgrown my birthday gift to her the previous year, a little chestnut gelding called Applejack. She was an athletic and natural rider, and wound up buying an open jumper who nobody except Jane seemed able to ride. She called him Bojangles and did wonders with him. I tried riding him only once, and was so terrified by the experience that I almost quit riding altogether. I sold little Applejack to a local teenager, and started riding school horses during lessons, which never lasts long. Show Barns make their money on lessons and on selling expensive horses to horseless riding students like me. After a few weeks of taking lessons on their school horses the sales routine began. “Shaun, what can I say? You’ve outgrown the school horses, and if you’re really serious about riding then it’s time to find you a nice thoroughbred.” Essentially they were saying, “Either you’re going to own an expensive, fine tuned jumping machine, or you’re going to remain a horseless slob, looked down upon by all concerned.” So within a few weeks, not wanting to remain a horseless slob, I forked over the money for a stunning bay thoroughbred gelding who I called Dawn Patrol. The problem was that Dawn Patrol was a five year old and only a year off the track, so he was completely green. This meant that I could only ride him under professional supervision, which wound up costing quite a bit of money. If I wanted to go hacking with Jane off in the woods and fields I had to rent a school horse from the barn, while my difficult-to-ride thoroughbred remained in his stall eating me out of house and home. I was now in way over my head.
August passed into September, and my porn production output continued at a frantic pace while I still spent weekends trying not to look foolish attempting to ride my fine tuned jumping machine, and watching Jane tear over Jump courses on her
chestnut monster with the reckless abandon of the fine rider she had become. She had risen to a full level above me, but I was happy with our situation. My life seemed to work. I was maxed-out, but as long no surprises came my way I could manage this level of activity. It was at this point that my mother called to tell me she was getting re-married.
This matrimonial announcement immediately put Jane into wedding-present mode. So, with our gift perfectly wrapped, we jumped on the Metroliner and headed to Washington DC, where the event was to take place. Both the ceremony and the reception were to be held at the townhouse of Michael Gill, a close friend of my mother’s new victim, and a man who had made a
lifetime career out of being the nephew of Mamie Eisenhower. He was one of those Washington political parasites who lived on the perks when his party was in power. The republicans still held the Whitehouse so Michael Gill was on the dole. It was never made clear to me exactly what Gill did, but from the look of him, I was certain that not all of it was legal.
The ceremony was to be presided over by a Seventh Circuit Appellate Judge, and attended by a collection of Washington’s best and worst characters. My mother’s new husband had owned restaurants in the Washington area for years, and seemed well liked. Bob Dole was there, as was Dick Cheney, Ed Musky, and what seemed like every lobbyist in the capital.
On the other side of the reception was a delegation of boys from the Bonnano family in New York, some of whom looked familiar. What an amazing gathering. Some of them had gone to law school to learn how to defend criminals, and some of them had attended “The University of the Streets” to learn the subtle nuances of the import/export business, but all of them were gangsters. I hadn’t seen this many republicans in one room since the televised coverage of the 1972 Convention.
I introduced Jane to the happy couple, who really did seem like a happy couple, and who in turn, introduced us to our host. Michael Gill took Jane in tow, “Young lady, before the ceremony begins, let me introduce you to our guests”, and off they went. While Jane was glad-handing the guest list, I decided to explore Gill’s house. The main floor contained the cavernous living room, its walls decorated with many photographs of Ike and Mamie, and where the wedding guests were milling about. Just down the hall was an equally large formal dining room with more photographs of the Eisenhowers, a chefs kitchen where the caterers were busy
prepping the banquet, and various and sundry pantries and storage cabinets. The floors above contained bedroom after bedroom, each one with walls covered with more Ike and Mamie pictures, that seem to go on forever. Next to the kitchen was a door that led to the stairway to the basement. I decided that Gill’s basement might be worth exploring, and I was right.
Michael Gill’s secret subterranean playground was a wood paneled wonderland of adult entertainment. A screening room, with couches instead of chairs, where guests could watch adult films while stretching out together in total comfort. The next room was decorated in a kind of cruise ship motif, with port-holes painted on the walls, round life-preservers hanging everywhere, and deck chairs for the comfort of the ship’s passengers. In the
center of the room was the biggest hot tub I had ever seen, accommodating maybe ten to twelve wet revelers at one time. As in the previous room, there was a large movie screen, and through one of the port-holes I noticed an 16MM movie projector.
The shelves in the projection room contained 16MM prints of feature films, all pornographic. As I went through the titles I was horrified to find several little movies that I had made for Sid Levine the previous year, and I was in about half of them. So Michael Gill had seen me in action. But how could he have gotten his hands on theatrical films that I had made for the DeCavalcante crime family? Then I remembered the boys from the Bonnano family who were upstairs for the wedding. The wedding! I made a bee-line for the stairway and arrived just in time. Jane was furious whispering, “Where have you been? Everybody’s been waiting for you.” I just said, “Don’t ask.”
The ceremony passed without a hitch, my sisters cried, and the reception began. Michael Gill hadn’t taken his eyes off Jane since we arrived, and it was making her uncomfortable. Gill, who’s constantly filling my glass, was telling me a series of bizarre stories about the sexual capabilities of his insatiable, nymphomaniac girlfriend. She was a mousy little thing, who I’m sure no one at the reception suspected of having a third hand located in her vagina, yet Gill maintained that this was the case. Now I knew that he recognized me from the movies. Why else would he be constantly whispering in my ear about his girlfriend’s sexual exploits? If he knew, did his pal who was in the midst of marrying my mother also know? Did Cheney? Dole? Musky? Just how many members of the United States Senate had watched, in the comfy confines of Michael Gill’s underground pleasure chamber, the movies I had made for the Mob? Gill was still relentlessly whispering. “I guarantee you young man, the slippery grasp, the velvety fingers, your zorch will be the happiest little guy on planet Earth.” Zorch? I hadn’t heard that word since I was twelve. At this point Gill decided that I should meet his pal Dick Cheney who, for the past few months, had been running Gerry Ford’s transition team, working just under his buddy Don Rumsfeld. “Dick, I’d like you meet the bride’s son Shaun. He’s a film maker you know.” Cheney turned with an outstretched hand, “A real pleasure Shaun. They make quite a handsome couple. A film maker, huh. Not a member of the press are you?” “No sir, not at all.” Cheney was sizing me up. “What kind of films do you make?” He was peering at me over the top of his glasses. “Golf sir, my last film was about the British Open.” Cheney smiled, “Golf. That’s the ticket. The great American common denominator. Everybody loves golf. Did you know that President Ford is quite an accomplished golfer? Plays with the pros all the time.”
So here we were at my mother’s wedding reception. Michael Gill was standing between Bob Dole, who was endlessly telling great jokes, and Dick Cheney, who was explaining how his friend Gerry Ford would save the GOP from ruin; and in between Dole’s Jokes and Cheney’s explanations, Gill was whispering in my ear about how it would feel when his girlfriend got that third hand in her vagina around my zorch. The only improvement that I could see on the theatricality of this moment might be the addition of a little acid, but I guess you can’t have everything.
The reception began to wind down and, before I could tell Jane about Gill’s subterranean amusement park, he was already telling her about his new gazillion gallon hot tub which, he proudly told her, was big enough for the whole neighborhood. He was having an intimate get together after the reception ended. Just a few couples would be there. Fun, open-minded couples, and we were invited. How could I have been so stupid? Gill was selling me on the sexual talents of his mousy girlfriend, while my mother was saying “I do”, in order to get his hands on Jane. This was truly hilarious. So my mother and her new hubby went over Niagara Falls in a barrel, and Jane and I took the short walk to Union Station, leaving Michael Gill and his three-handed girlfriend to swim laps in their hot tub.
Back in New York, I had stopped by Sid’s office to pick up a couple of checks from Star, and their office had a different feel. The young guys who did the grunt work, carrying boxes of film cans from one floor to the next, were all wearing suits. Normally these guys wore tee shirts, so I asked them what was going on. Paulie, who was the youngest, and always joking around, seemed strangely serious. “We’re in the banking business now”, he said. “Got to look good.” The banking business?
So I took Star’s checks down to the Franklin National Bank, like I always did, and a change had been made. The Franklin sign above the building had been replaced by one that read European American Bank. Inside all seemed as usual, with the exception ofsome of the bank’s personnel. Sitting at desks formerly occupied by the branch’s officers were employees of Star Distributors, wearing suits and looking a bit out of place. Charlie, the manager who had worked for Franklin, was still there and greeted me. “Hi Shaun, what have you got today?” “Just a few checks, Charlie.” He smiled. “No problem. Come on in the back.” As we walked toward the back of the bank, some of the “officers” winked or gave me the high-sign. In the bank’s back room four long tables had been set up, and they were covered with cash in various denominations, some of it stacked, and some of it just in piles. There were five or six men, all wearing suits, and all recognizable to me as employees of Star, sitting at the tables, counting the money, and putting the cash in large corrugated cardboard boxes. I gave the checks to Charlie, who reached into one of the boxes and handed me an enormous stack of freshly laundered hundred dollar bills. “Things are going to be easier from now on”, he said while counting out the last of my cash. It took a few of these odd transactions before the scandal hit the papers.
The Sicilian Mafia, fronted by an Italian businessman named Michele Sindona, had bought out the failing Franklin National Bank, renaming it EAB. The administration of the bank’s branches was to be the responsibility of New York’s Gambino crime family, along with the DeCavalcantes. So that’s what happened. I wondered why they didn’t just call it the Mafia National Bank and get it over with, but of course I never suggested this idea to the boys. So the European American Bank went about doing business with most of its employees bearing a strange resemblance to the cast of Mean Streets.
© 2011 Shaun Costello
WALKING IN A WICCA WONDERLAND
Original music by Felix Bernard
New lyrics by Shaun Costello.
Just sing these lyrics to the melody of that old Christmas Classic:
WALKING IN A WINTER WONDERLAND
Casting spells must be thrilling,
to ensure off-shore drilling.
I can’t wait to see,
that dear GOP
Walking in a Wicca Wonderland
In the meadow we will build a pyre,
Witchy ones will watch us with a frown.
I’ll say grab those logs and pile them higher,
‘cause which hunts are the biggest game in town.
Turning Newts into toadstools,
While Gulf oil fills our tide pools.
She’ll just grab her broom,
while singin’ that tune,
Walking in a Wicca Wonderland
While in Congress Dems are really freaking,
wondering how long we’ll be in town.
Sarah Palin’s hope chest she’s been tweaking,
with Bachmann and O’Donnell still around.
Will that coven conspire,
making healthcare costs higher?
And howl at the moon,
while humming that tune,
Walking in a Wicca Wonderland.
Walking in a Wicca Wonderland,
Walking in a Wicca Wonderland,
Walking in a Wicca Wonderland.
© 2011 Shaun Costello
RED SKY AT MORNING
By 1982 my downward spiral was well under way,
not that I wasn’t enjoying myself.
By Shaun Costello
The sun was an hour from rising, and the sky was a fiery red when we drove the trailer over the Mid Hudson Bridge on our way to Rhinebeck. Skies like this always reminded me of the old sea shanty that began:
“Red sky at morning, sailor’s warning.
Red sky at night, sailor’s delight.”
There were three of us riding in the cab of my truck; myself, Harriett, and Becky, a local high-schooler who was working as our groom for the day. The lights in the barn had burned late the night before. There were coats to be washed and brushed, manes and tails to be pulled and braided, hoofs to be polished, tack to be soaped and scrubbed, and everything, other than our two now-immaculate horses, packed into the trailer for the next day’s competition. Then home to try to get some sleep, which never happened because I was too terrified of my dressage test. If only I could get through the dressage test, the next two phases of the competition would be a breeze. I could always get horses over fences. But the dressage test.
I would lie awake staring at the ceiling, going through the test over and over. Enter at “A” at a working trot. Keep it straight, keep it straight. Collect and halt at “X”. Settle. Be still. Salute the judge. Be still. Wait for the nod. Pray to God that somebody’s truck doesn’t backfire. Exhale. Proceed to “C” at a working walk. What a nightmare. If I could just get through the dressage test.
In the back of the trailer were two one-thousand-pound animals; primped, polished, and ready to show their stuff. In the front was a changing compartment that contained our freshly cleaned tack, our riding clothes, our boots and helmets, and the various tools and horsey gadgets that would see us through the event. In my tack trunk hung my custom tailored riding jacket, and in the inside pocket of that jacket were four tiny glass one-gram bottles of Peruvian flake. It would be a four-gram day.
My dressage test was a blank. I entered the ring, I left the ring, and I couldn’t remember a thing. Probably better that way. When I looked at the scores that were posted outside the judge’s tent I was 58th, out of 65 riders. There were actually seven riders who were worse than I was. Not bad. Maybe the coke helped. I had already gone through the first gram. And, unknown to Harriett, my tiny coke spoon was secretly finding its way to Becky’s willing little nostrils throughout the morning. There’s a sexual dynamic to the shared cocaine experience. You do a line, and first there’s the exhilaration – the heightened awareness followed, only moments later, by the glow of sensuality, and sense of well being. Then she does a line, and you know what she’s experiencing, and you want her to know that you know, and you want to kiss her, and hold her, and touch her everywhere. You want to join her experience. Of course, this could be embarrassing if she’s only sixteen, and the two of you are standing in the middle of three hundred other people, so you keep your hands to yourself. And as the day progressed, and we kept up the coke consumption, the heightened sexuality between us became more intense. I worried that Harriett would notice the amount of time I was spending with Becky in the dressing compartment of the trailer, but she was preoccupied with her own riding and didn’t seem to pay attention.
I did well in the cross-country phase, and was now 20th, out of the 65 competitors. I was also now half way through my third gram, with the help of my loyal groom, who was assisting me through the obligatory wardrobe changes that happen before each phase in the competition, her young hands brushing dangerously close to places where they should never have been. I was second in stadium Jumping, the third and last phase of the competition, and wound up sixth overall, getting a green ribbon for my efforts.
It was after nine by the time we dropped Harriett off at the house, and drove around to the barn to unload the trailer and feed the horses. Becky insisted that I drop her at the beginning of the long driveway to her parent’s house. There was an awkward moment, the two of us standing beside my truck, when I handed her twenty dollars, which was her groom’s fee for the day. I told her it should
be more and she said, “Are you kidding? I’d do it for nothing. I’d do anything for you. Have you got another hit?” And suddenly it happened. It had to. The kissing, and groping, and tearing of clothes, and the coldness of the metal bed of the pickup truck against my skin, and she was so willing to please me, and she was so young and delicious, and I’m not sure how long it lasted, and then there was nothing but the loud breathing, and then the cold. I don’t think we said another word to each other. There was nothing really to say. I dropped her off further up the driveway, closer to her parent’s house, and then drove home.
Harriett was still up, and she was bristling. When I asked her if she wanted me to fix a late supper she refused to talk to me. I guess my flirtation with Becky must have been obvious, and it had happened within full view of most of our friends. Harriett was livid. So I had a glass of port, and went upstairs to finally get some sleep. All in all, Harriett’s objections not withstanding, it had been a good day. A green ribbon day. A four gram day. That’s the way I saw it. That’s the way my mind worked. It was the logic of the coke spoon. Harriett’s taking exception to my behavior was simply an annoyance. A small bump in my road to self-satisfaction. A minor glitch. And what was she objecting to? Just, my ingesting enough cocaine hydrochloride over the last fourteen hours to give a normal person a seizure. And sharing a good deal of it with an underage girl, with whom I had a felonious sexual encounter in the back of a pick-up truck. And, in my coked-out haze, I thought it had been a good day. Just how many more ‘good days’ like this one could I survive? How many could the people around me survive? The collateral damage was mounting.
My journey towards oblivion was gaining momentum now. I was riding a runaway train. I was out of control, and it didn’t scare me a bit. ‘Out of control’ was delicious. ‘Out of control’ was a safe haven from responsibility. ‘Out of control’ was my excuse-of-choice for all my sins. ‘Out of control’ was my last alias. It was the outfit I wore to the costume party that my life had become. Maybe ‘out of control’ had been my intended destination all along. Since, taking advantage of the youth-fare, and boarding the train as a
twelve-year-old, while negotiating with God about masturbation. Since hiding behind my first pseudonym. Since becoming comfortable with duplicity. Since telling my first lie. I had lied to Jane, and Jane had lied to her parents, and her parents had lied to themselves. All aboard. Next stop self-destruction.
I was spending more than I was earning, and funds were becoming dangerously low. My ability to generate income through producing pornography, something I had always taken for granted, was now seriously impaired by the cognitive congestion in my coked-out brain. Spending money was seductive. Another ounce. A new thoroughbred. “How much? Sure, I’ll take it. No, give me two. Hey everybody, I’ve got more
coke, have some. Want some quaaludes? Sure, I’ve got plenty. And have some more coke. Hey, lets go to Jamaica for the weekend, my treat. Let’s call a limo. I can charge it. But please like me, OK? I just want everyone to like me. Please”. I needed compensation for my own self-loathing.
Harriett was fed-up with my charade, and I was spending more and more time in the city. I had been abandoned by Mark Silverman, who had gone off to Texas to help Joel and Ethan Coen make “Blood Simple”. Mark gave me his assistant Kevin, who took his place, and I drove him crazy. All night bacchanal’s at the Hellfire Club and three day drug/sex binges at Steve Tucker’s had taken their toll on my cognitive abilities. Where Mark, knowing what I needed, and where I had been the night before, made decisions without needing my approval, Kevin simply walked through the offices at 505 muttering to himself that I had lost my ability to focus on anything. He was right. I could barely focus on the meter to figure out the taxi fare from Steve Tucker’s to The Hellfire Club – my home away from home.
The Hellfire Club had been built as a working set for an Al Pacino movie called Cruising. In the film, it was supposed to be a gay sex club. The producers left it intact when they struck the production, and the owner of the building opened it as The Hellfire Club. It was gay, it was straight, it was rough, it was smooth, it was all things to all people, and there’s never been anything like it. As the hour grew later, and Donna Summer grew louder moaning, “Ooooooooooooo love to love ya baby”, and the dancers grew sweatier, and the sound of a distant whip crack grew more frequent, the night was just beginning. Jerzy Kozinski was in the corner practicing the art of manipulation, convincing unsuspecting girls into doing unthinkable things. Mickey Rourke seemed everywhere, groping and caressing ever-available flesh. Huntington Hartford, who was eating Quaaludes like candy, leaned against a wall trying to focus on the activities happening in front of him. Recognizable fashion models were strutting through the “Maze” in the back of the club, hands outstretched, stoking the hard cocks, sometimes twenty at a time, protruding through the glory holes on either side. If you had to take a leak, the only bathroom had a trough, about six feet long, containing a piss soaked guy in fatigues chanting, “Faggot, faggot, piss here, piss here, I’m a faggot, got some poppers?” Jamie Gillis, had leash in hand, connected to the collar on the throat
of Gael Green, a well known restaurant critic for New York Magazine, who was on her knees servicing a line of twenty guys waiting to be sucked off. “Oooooooooooooo love to love ya baby.” I just loved this place.
And when I got tired of the crowd at Hellfire I could always head back up to Steve Tucker’s apartment, which was a constant drug/sex binge. Cocaine, both snorted and free based, ecstasy, mushrooms, Ketamine (Special K), which made you feel like you had just been shot out of a cannon, and willing young girls in a quaalude haze, ready to do anything. It was a pharmaceutical phantasmagoria.
And I had a movie to do. I had to pay for all this. I sat in my office trying to write a script, and the sirens at Steve Tucker’s were sweetly singing. So I did another line of coke. It couldn’t hurt. I had two more pictures to do for Leisure Time, and I’d become a messy commodity. I hired an old friend, Ron Dorfman, to shoot both films. He was doing as much cocaine as I was, so my paranoia level was assuaged. I did the pictures. What a mess.
© 2009 Shaun Costello
From Stage to Screen
Ten Broadway Musicals that, when adapted
to the screen, held their own as Motion Pictures.
By Shaun Costello
I had the good fortune to have grown up in New York City, the son of parents who enjoyed Broadway Theater, particularly musicals. On my mother’s side, there was a history going all the way back to Vaudeville, where, as a child, along with her older brother (My Uncle Tommy), she danced with her parents in an act billed as The Dancing Dowlings. They played theaters, mainly in the South, and shared the playbill with such Vaudeville luminaries as; Buck and Bubbles, The Nicholas Brothers, Jack Benny, George Burns and Gracie Allen, Fanny Bryce, and many others. Years later, my mother and uncle wound up as contract players for Twentieth Century Fox, dancing in Fox musicals like “Down Argentine Way” with Don Ameche and Betty Grable. In those days, movie musicals had specialty acts, who would perform as either background or foreground to the film’s principals. Down Argentine Way’s specialty acts included my mother and uncle who did an improvised Conga number, The Nicholas Brothers (Yes, the same guys they performed with as kids), who did their dazzling tap thing, and Carmen Miranda, who sang tongue twisters in Portuguese, and always appeared with fruit on her head.
So, starting at the tender age of five or six, I was dragged along by my parents to Broadway Musicals, and loved every moment. My first Broadway memory was Peter Pan. Not the 1954 Mary Martin/Cyril Ritchard/Jule Styne/Comden and Green Peter Pan, which became the accepted standard bearer for the title. And, not the original either, which played back in the Twenties. No, I’m talking about the 1950 Leonard Bernstein (both music and lyrics) Peter Pan, with
Jean Arthur as the dauntless leader of the lost boys, and Boris Karloff as his nemesis, Captain Hook. Unlike the foppish Cyril Ritchard, Karloff’s Captain Hook was terrifying, and scared the hell out of me. To say that Pater Pan, even at that tender age, got me hooked on musicals, would be shamelessly opportunistic, but, none the less – true. Throughout the Fifties and Sixties, I don’t think there was an important show that I missed, not one.
I went to high School in Manhattan, and learned the trick of ‘second acting’ Broadway Shows. It’s simple, and I’m sure would still work today. On Wednesdays, Matinee day on Broadway, a few of us at Rhodes Prep would cut our last class or two, and head over to the theater district. There is security at Broadway theaters only at the beginning of the show. When the audience begins to file back in after the intermission, no one checks their tickets. The trick is to mingle with the crowd, pretend to belong, and be the last ones in. With everyone else seated, any empty seats would be ours for the taking, and the second act of the show was seen, free of charge. I must have sat through the second act of Gypsy twenty times.
In 1957, at the Winter Garden Theater, I saw Leonard Bernstein conduct the Pit Orchestra for the overture, on the opening night of West Side Story. I was too young to have understood the significance of that moment, but never forgot it. So, I guess what I’m saying here, is that I’ve been blessed to have been exposed to musical theater from a very young age, and might as well put all this history to some practical use. I know most of you are thinking ‘Oh no, not another list’. But lists are useful, for me anyhow, and this is something I’ve given a great deal of thought to.
Not that long ago, I had a Facebook discussion with my old friend Mal Worob, about the film version of the Broadway Musical “Cabaret”, and how it was probably the best film adaptation of a Broadway Musical, ever. That got me to thinking. If Cabaret was the best, and if the inevitable Top Ten treatment were given to film adaptations of stage musicals, just what exactly would the other nine be? The single most important criterion would have to be, film adaptations of Broadway musicals, that, even if there had been no stage original to compare them to, would stand on their own as Motion Picture Musicals, marvelous entertainment vehicles in their own right.
I also realize that we’re back to the old subjectivity shenanigans again – my list will probably not match yours, but it’s a start, and that’s really all I’m after here.
So, in alphabetical order:
From Christopher Isherwood’s ‘I Am a Camera’ stories of 1920’s and 1930’s Berlin. Bob Fosse, who made his bones as a stage choreographer, dazzles as few have, as a film director. From the
very opening shot, Cabaret is startlingly fresh and different than anything seen before. I think you could blissfully sit through it, even if it had no story, which it has. Sally, an entertainer at Berlin’s Kit-Kat Klub, has affairs with Brian (Michael York), and Maximilian (Helmut Griem), both of whom are bi-sexual, and having a boy-boy thing with each other. Sally becomes pregnant, Brian offers to do the right thing, and none of it matters – the show’s the thing. And Kit-Kat’s MC, Joel Grey mesmerizes here for the camera as much as he did on the stage. Under Fosse’s keen, energetic direction, Kander and Ebb’s score still shines, some songs better in filmed close-up. And if the number at the gasthaus, “Tomorrow Belongs to Me” doesn’t put 1930’s Germany into perspective, then you need time at the Reality Resumptive Institute.
Beautifully shot by Geoffrey Unsworth, and edited by David Bretherton, Cabaret is like nothing before or since.
Death Row Musicals are few and far between. The stage production was designed in 1975 by Bob Fosse as a dance-driven vehicle for wife Gwen Verdon, and sassy Chita Rivera, and, while
Kander and Ebb’s (Yes, those two again) songs shined, it was Fosse’s inventive choreography that drove the bus, in one number – literally.
But Rob Marshall’s 2002 adaptation, without attempting to imitate, absolutely glows, and with a surprising cast, including Renee Zellweger, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Queen Latifah, and Richard Gere – and, yes they sing their own numbers, and yes, they’re terrific. Marshall wisely chose to accurately recreate Fosse’s original choreography, but on film, Kander and Ebb’s score is given a more intimate performance, keeping pace
with Fosse’s dance numbers. Solid Cinematography by Dion Beebe, and slick editing by Martin Walsh keep things moving. Nice to see modern film technique used to make a good show even better. So, Mr. Marshall, why not do it again? There’s a long list of wonderful shows, just waiting for this kind of transformation.
FIDDLER ON THE ROOF 1971
Just who is this Topol guy, and why isn’t Zero Mostel in this movie? This troubled many back in 1971 who, like myself, had seen the show’s protagonist Tevye played by Zero Mostel on the
stage, and would accept no substitute. But Director Norman Jewison had seen an Israeli actor named Chaim Topol do the part on the London stage, and saw him as a more realistic Tevye, more in keeping with his vision for this film. It took about fifteen minutes for Topol to win me over, and I’m a major Mostel fan.
About Jewison’s vision – never has a Movie Musical contained such striking visuals, reminiscent of early Chagall Paintings, and some Van Gogh, as well. Cinematographer Oswald Morris, on Jewison’s suggestion, shot much of the footage through a nylon stocking, in order to achieve just the right diffusion.
So, from the Jewish Mark Twain, Sholom Aleichem, come the Tevye stories. Tales of a milkman named Tevye, in the tiny shtetl
of Anatevka, somewhere in the wilds of nineteenth century Czarist Russia. The name Fiddler on the Roof came from the
image in a Chagall painting. The Bock and Harnick score is given lush visual treatment here, along with Jerome Robbins’ original choreography. Fiddler is a big, expensive, long (3 hours), elaborately produced film, and Jewison’s vision paid off in spades – just the right amount of realism, mixed with absurdity. A lovely, emotionally satisfying three hours of cinema, really done to perfection. I found no faults with it, truly.
A FUNNY THING HAPPENED ON THE WAY TO THE FORUM 1966
I guess you can call this Zero’s revenge for his exclusion from the aforementioned title, although this movie was shot five years
earlier than Fiddler. But on this list, it comes alphabetically after Fiddler, so we’ll call it Zero’s revenge and be done with it.
In ancient Rome, the Empire’s laziest slave Pseudolus (Mostel) wants his freedom if it kills him, which it might. Steven Sondheim’s music and lyrics, and Larry Gelbart, and Burt Shrevelove’s book make for some funny doings.
I saw this on Broadway with both Zero Mostel, and Dick Shawn as Pseudolus, and it was a smart, riotously funny show. Handing this Material to film director Dick Lester however, added an element of frenzied energy, that makes it even funnier. And Lester added some spice to the cast with the addition of Phil Silvers, Jack Gilford, and Buster Keaton.
Wonderful, clever, frantic banter (Thank you Gelbart/Shevelove), and zany musical numbers make for a satisfying, if unusual, movie musical.
Best number – Captain Gloriosus enters the city.
GUYS AND DOLLS 1955
Joseph L. Mankiewicz
So, would Damon Runyan have gotten a kick out of the song and dance treatment given his eccentric Broadway caricatures; Nicely-Nicely Johnson, Nathan Detroit, Sky Masterson, Harry the
Horse, Big Jule, and Benny Southstreet? I’d like to think so. How could anyone not fall in love with Frank Loesser’s take on Runyan’s happy-go-lucky gang? Loesser’s Guys and Dolls is one of the all-time great Broadway shows, and Joe Mankiewicz, along with writers Jo Swerling, Abe Burrows, Runyan, and an uncredited Ben Hecht, turn it into screen gold for Goldwyn. The big risk here, was hiring box office draw Marlon Brando. Marlon Brando? Could he sing? Could
he dance? The answer is, well, sort of – enough to get by, anyway. But, with lyrics like “Luck, if you’ve ever been a Lady to begin with, luck be a Lady tonight”, the song can carry the singer, and here, it does.
The plot is simple, Nathan Detroit (Frank Sinatra) is in charge of setting up “The Oldest Established Permanent Floating
Crap Game in New York”. But he needs a thousand bucks to fund the game. So he bets gambler Sky Masterson (Brando) a thousand clams that Sky can’t persuade Sister Sarah Brown (Jean Simmons) to abandon her Times Square Mission and fly to Havana with him. Sky hands Nathan his “Marker”, and the game is on. Two Vets from the Broadway original, Vivian Blaine as Miss Adelaide, and the remarkable Stubby Kaye as Nicely-Nicely, whose show stopper, “Sit Down You’re Rocking the Boat” is pure joy on the screen, as well.
And Loesser’s glorious lyrics; “I got the horse right here, his name is Paul Revere”, and “And the Devil will drag you under, by the sharp lapel on your checkered coat”, still delight the senses of the otherwise sensible.
I think we all know the story here. Incorrigible stage mother Mama Rose Hovick (Rosalind Russel) bets the ranch on daughter
Baby June (Morgan Btittany) becoming a Vaudeville star. But when June flees the theatrical nest, Mama Rose is forced to turn her questionable attentions to older, and less obviously talented sister Louise (Natalie Wood) who winds up becoming Gypsy Rose Lee, a famous stripper at Minsky’s Burlesque. The Styne/Sondheim Musical, starring the indomitable Ethel Merman, is one of Broadways real champs, and the switch from Merman to Rosalind Russell in the movie was risky, but paid off. Russell, while not as powerful in the musical numbers, created a far more complex and compelling Mama
Rose on the screen. And, the addition of Karl Malden as Mama Rose’s relentless beau Herbie, rounds out a nice cast of principals.
The book for the show, written by Arthur Laurents, was based on gypsy Rose Lee’s memoirs. Unlike the predecessors on this list, Gypsy is stagey, but forgivably so. The delicious and familiar score, and a game cast make this memorably entertaining. Give Gypsy a chance. Let her entertain you.
LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS 1986
I’ll bet I scared you with this one, but believe me, it belongs here. An unusual theatrical ancestry – The Off Broadway (So, sue me) Musical was based on Roger Corman’s 1960 absurdist
horror/comedy (that’s how it wound up, anyway) that featured a very young Jack Nicholson. The Off Broadway production was a very dark musical indeed, but hilariously so. And, unlike others on this list, the movie wound up quite different from its theatrical parent, with several songs deleted and new ones added.
Nerdy florist Seymour (Rick Morainis) works in a flower shop, and has a crush on co-worker Audrey (Ellen Greene). Seymour finds that he has an unusual plant on his hands, an ever-growing carnivorous cactus with a hunger for human blood. He names his thirsty succulent Audrey II, after his love interest, and winds up feeding Audrey’s sadistic Dentist boyfriend (Steve Martin) to his plant-pal. Seymour’s boss, who witnessed the dentist’s demise, is the next man on the menu. Where will it end? The plant keeps growing larger, and has Seymour’s girlfriend Audrey in its crosshairs. The insatiable succulent has only one oft-repeated line, “FEED ME”.
Ridiculous, I know, but outrageously funny stuff here, and some catchy tunes as well. If you haven’t seen this, what’s stopping you?
Adapted from the London, then Broadway stage, and of course based on Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist, Oliver was filmed at England’s Shepperton Studios. Lionel Bart’s (music and lyrics)
Oliver was one of my very favorite stage musicals, featuring an inventive staging unlike anything I’ve seen before or since. Carol Reed’s movie version recreates a dark, somber, Dickensian London – a perfect background for the story at hand.
Young Oliver escapes a cruel orphanage, and winds up recruited by a band of Dickensian London’s homeless boys, and their greedy mentor Fagin, who
teaches him, “You’ve got to pick a pocket or two”, in one of the production’s memorable musical numbers. Legend has it that over five thousand boys were auditioned before Reed settled on young Mark Lester for the title role.
Fagin’s character in the Dickens book, as well as subsequent movie versions (David Lean’s memorable film with a young, huge-nosed Alec Guiness as Fagin, comes to mind) had strong anti-Semitic overtones, but Lionel Bart, himself Jewish) softened the miser’s character to make him almost likeable.
“Food, glorious food”, sing the boys at the orphanage, and a glorious musical score this is, with songs expertly staged to match the story, with more dark lensing from
cinematographer Oswald Morris, Production Design by John Box, Art Direction by Terence Marsh, and costumes by Phyllis Dalton. And, a tasty cast including Ron Moody as Fagin, Oliver Reed as Bill Sikes, Shani Wallace as Nancy, Harry Secombe as Mr. Bumble, and old Hugh Griffith as the Magistrate.
A lush, luscious feast for the eyes and ears.
THE SOUND OF MUSIC 1965
Once upon a time, in a pre-Star Wars world, before Steven Spielberg and George Lucas rewrote the game plan for box office bonanzas, there was one movie that broke all attendance records
world-wide, and ruled the box office roost for many, many years. It had no special effects to speak of, no space ships or cute and fuzzy aliens, no super heroes saving mankind from dark misadventure. It was simply, the world’s favorite movie. All it had was a simple story of good triumphing over ignorance and impending evil, Rogers and Hammerstein’s
magnificent music, and the visual splendor of Alpine Austria. And, that incredible opening sequence.
It was based on the true story (with the appropriate liberties taken) of the Trapp family, in late 1930’s Austria, and the nanny
Maria (Julie Andrews), a failed nun, who would change their lives forever. A family of musical prodigies, tutored by Maria, and led by their smitten (with Maria, that is) father Captain Von Trapp (Christopher Plummer), they would use their musical performances to escape their Nazi-occupied homeland. Most of them wound up in Vermont, where their descendents still operate the Trapp Family Lodge.
Hard to imagine film producers attempting such a thing today, but The Sound of Music was shot by Ted McCord in 70MM Anamorphic Panavision, and is visually glorious to behold. The production was designed by Boris Leven, Costume Design by Dorothy Jeakins, and seamlessly edited by Bill Reynolds. Kudos to a top-flight crew.
If there’s anyone reading this who has not seen The Sound of Music, go find it. It’s out there. Probably Rogers and Hammerstein’s best all around score, and that’s saying something. You don’t have to tell anyone. Keep it a secret, if you like, but see it.
WEST SIDE STORY 1961
Shakespeare invades Hell’s Kitchen. Instead of the feuding Montagues and Capulets, we have the Sharks and the Jets. Instead of Romeo and Juliet, we have Tony and Maria. Different names
and situations, but star-crossed, ill-fated lovers, just the same. And to bring it all about, we are blessed with the sheer genius of two men, Leonard Bernstein and Jerome Robbins, who would each do their best work here.
In New York’s Hell’s Kitchen, competing gangs vie for supremacy, and there is no love lost, or room for negotiation. The lyrics say so:
“When you’re a Jet,
you’re a Jet all the way,
from your first cigarette,
to your last dying day”
Riff leads the white Jets, and Bernardo the Puerto Rican Sharks, and there’s no room for intermingling. But, at a dance, while Jets and Sharks compete through ethnically-driven dance routines, Riff’s cousin Tony and Bernardo’s sister Maria suddenly notice each other across the gym, and, for this ill-fated couple, the world simply disappears. Sounds corny, I know, but it works, and you’re hooked.
Jerome Robbins creates original, high energy choreography, as the Sharks and Jets dance across streets and playgrounds singing Leonard Bernstein’s unprecedented score, all along headed toward the tragic conclusion that we all know is coming. During a gang fight, Tony, while trying to stop the violence, accidently stabs Bernardo, and the Sharks and the Jets go to the mattresses. Regardless of the lyrics, there is no place for the love between Tony and Maria, who, like that couple in Verona, succumb to the hatred and prejudice of their peers.
Natalie Wood is a compelling Maria. You know her voice is dubbed in the songs, but somehow it doesn’t matter. Richard Beymer however, is a questionable, even effeminate Tony, the only real casting mistake. Russ Tamblyn is a bouncy Riff, and his Sharks counterpart, Bernardo, is well turned by George Chakiris. But the show is stolen by a vivacious Rita Moreno, whose spicy Anita steals every shot she’s in.
Robert Wise steers the ship with a quietly firm directorial hand, leaving Robbins to do the brilliant grunt work. New York City postponed the early construction of Linclon Center, while the troupe cavorted about on the center’s future location. Steven
Sondheim’s first adult job here, as lyricist. He’s said in recent interviews that he finds his work on West Side Story to be mostly embarrassingly bad. Hardly – but certainly much simpler stuff than his later shows.
A story by Shakespeare, Bernstein and Robbins’ best work, and a bunch of pros, singing and dancing their heads off – what could be better?
© 2011 Shaun Costello
Ten films (and they’re not the only ten) that, for reasons unknown to me, I have seen at least ten times.
By Shaun Costello
I’ve seen a lot of bad movies, and willingly confess to having enjoyed most of them. Like their better brethren, some bad movies are just likeable. This whole movie thing is so subjective, like books, I guess. What makes us prefer one over another? What is it about certain films, that strikes a chord in us, creating the need to see them again? Is any movie really worth seeing ten times? I have no answers to any of these questions, and readily admit that the aforementioned behavior sounds symptomatic of some kind of psychiatric anomaly. Furthermore, as long as I’m in the confessional, back in the late Sixties and early Seventies, I unashamedly admit to having spent a preposterous amount of time, sitting in the balcony of the old Elgin Cinema (Now the Joyce Theater of Dance) on Eighth Avenue and 19th Street, eyes glued to the screen, absorbing one movie after another, becoming hungrier and hungrier for more of the same. And, to add some full-disclosure here, I readily confess to having had intimate knowledge of the interiors of every movie house in Manhattan, from Fourteenth Street to Eighty Sixth – and river to river. From the trendy, East Side, cup of espresso before the credits venues – to the grunge palaces of 42nd Street, where you could see three action pictures for a buck, and where the predominantly black audience threw empty soda cans at the screen, to warn the hero that a bad guy was sneaking up behind him. If movie addiction were a crime, I’d be doing life without parole, as a permanent guest of the state.
Does anyone know the name of an affordable shrink?
Where was I? Oh, the over and over thing. Thanks to Blogging, I can share part of my addiction with you, ten examples at a time. While there are probably hundreds of movies that I have seen at least ten times, I have selected the following ten, ten being the magic number of which lists seem to be constructed.
Although some films on my previously blogged lists could easily have been included here, I’ll limit this to as yet unlisted titles.
So, in alphabetical order:
Terry Malick’s hypnotic dramatization of the 1958 Starkweather/Fugate murder spree, across the prairie. The whole movie has an other-worldly feel to it, thanks to Sissy Spacek’s detached, child-like narration, and Malick’s use of Karl Orff’s children’s music. Spacek witnesses Sheen’s sudden, unexpected murder of her parents, and reacts as though the event was an episode of Ozzie and Harriet on television. They set fire to the house and hit the road, as we see Sissy’s life, in a series of close-ups of burning photographs and toys, go up in flames, scored to Orff’s rhythmic syncopation. Her detached narration becomes more bizarre with each of Sheen’s subsequent murders, as they kill their way through the Dakota badlands. Growing more and more paranoid, Sheen creates a hideout in the sagebrush, complete with deadly booby traps to deter their pursuers. Out of nowhere, a Sheen/Spacek desert dance begins to Mickey and Sylvia’s “Love is Strange”, and ends just as abruptly as it began. Strange and deadly doings, out on the prairie.
Dogs of War 1980
“Cry havoc, and let slip the dogs of war” Shakespeare/Julius Caesar
My Favorite Frederick Forsyth book, and definitely a film worth seeing. I have no idea why I like this film so much, but Christopher Walken’s both vulnerable, and dangerous persona, makes this thing work. Mercenaries are hired to depose a dictator in a fictional and failed African state. Forsyth’s elaborate detail, and great ensemble work keeps the action entertaining. Cast includes: Tom Berenger, Paul Freeman, Jean Francois Stevenin, and JoBeth Williams.
From Larry McMurty’s novel, Hud is Paul Newman’s cranky cowboy caper. A disappointment to his stalwart, principled father (Melvyn Douglas), and a hero to his younger brother ( Brandon De Wilde), Hud’s just waiting for his Dad to die so he can inherit the ranch. Patricia Neal is hired to help with the chores, creating some lust amongst the longhorns. And have a listen to Elmer Bernstein’s subtly effective score – sometimes using just one guitar. Newman is one nasty cowpoke, but Douglas and Neal steal the show, and win their Oscars. A Best Cinematography Oscar also went to James Wong Howe for some beautiful work in Black and White.
Alan Pakula 1971
Klute was the first installment of what would become known as director Alan Pakula’s “Paranoia Trilogy”. The other two films are “The Parallax View” (1974) and “All the President’s Men” (1976). But, I think most people remember it for Jane Fonda’s once-in-a-lifetime performance (and her Oscar) as the jittery hooker with someone on her roof.
The film begins with the disappearance of Pennsylvania executive Tom Gruneman. The police reveal that an obscene letter was found in Gruneman’s office. It was addressed to a prostitute in New York City named Bree Daniels (Fonda), who had received several similar letters from Gruneman. Much to the surprise of the police, Peter Cable (Cioffi), an executive at Gruneman’s company, hires family friend John Klute (Sutherland) to investigate Gruneman’s disappearance.
Klute rents an apartment in the basement of Daniels’ building, taps her phone, and follows her as she turns tricks. Initially, Daniels appears to be liberated by the freedom of freelancing as a call girl. In visits with a psychiatrist throughout the film, however, she reveals that she feels empty inside and wants to quit. Klute asks Daniels to answer some of his questions, but she refuses. He approaches her again, revealing that he has been watching her. She assumes that he will turn her in if she does not cooperate, but does not recall Gruneman at all. She reveals that she was beaten by one of her ‘johns’ two years earlier, but after seeing a photo of Gruneman, she says she cannot say for sure one way or the other. She is only certain that the john “was serious” about the attack.
Daniels takes Klute to meet her former pimp, Frank Ligourin (Scheider). Ligourin reveals that one of his prostitutes passed off the abusive client to Bree and another woman named Arlyn Page (Dorothy Tristan). The original prostitute committed suicide, and Page became a junkieand disappeared. Klute gives his surveillance tapes to Daniels, telling her he is finished with her part of the case. But, realizing that he cannot continue the investigation without her, he re-enlists her help to track down Page.
Klute is one of the great New York Location movies. Others that come to mind are “Serpico”, “The French Connection”, and “Three Days of the Condor”. From the very first credit, Michael Small’s tingly, eerie musical score sets the mood. Alan Pakula went for dark and gritty, shooting in tight locations where entire scenes were lit exclusively with ‘inkies’. The result is a feeling of intimacy that resonates throughout the film, amplifying a sense of impending danger.
Beyond Fonda’s astounding performance, Donald Southerland’s John Klute has a hound dog-like persistence. Roy Scheider does a creepy turn as Fonda’s pimp, and Charles Cioffi is effectively dangerous as the serial hooker-killer. But, it’s Vivian Nathan, as Fonda’s shrink, who steals the show.
The Prince of Darkness, Gordon Willis, shines here, creating luster in the shadows. Seemless editing by Carl Lerner, and Michael Small’s relentlessly eerie score make this memorable. Maybe you have to be a New Yorker to love this film, but I don’t think so. One of my all time favorites.
Best scenes: Fonda with her ‘trick’ in the hotel room – “Oh, my angel. My angel”. And Jane tells old Mr Goldfarb about her recent erotic adventure. “No, he was an older man, not unlike yourself. Young men can be so…..silly”.
Lost Horizon 1937
It was the mid Thirties, and the Faschisti were marching across an ever-darkening Europe. James Hilton’s novel described a better place, a place of peaceful solutions, and escape from the
jack boot – somewhere over the rainbow, or in this case over the Himalaya’s, was the secret valley of the Blue Moon, and at its center – Shangri La, where dreams came true and life was eternal, well almost. In my opinion, Lost Horizon is Frank Capra’s masterpiece, and a joy for anyone to see.
The director didn’t like the early dailies – something just wasn’t right in those snow scenes. And it dawned on Capra, that there was no steaming breath from the mouths of his actors. So he packed up and reshot in a gigantic meat freezer, somewhere in Brentwood.
Tragically, about fifteen minutes of the original negative has been lost. The producers of the now-available DVD offer two versions; one with the existing picture, and another (thank God) with the screenplay intact, and a black picture over the dialogue scenes where the original picture was lost. I found the latter to be preferable, hearing the entire script, for me anyway, was much more satisfying.
A delicious Fairy Tale beautifully delivered by Capra with: Ronald Coleman, Jane Wyatt, Edward Everett Horton, Thomas Mitchell, and Sam Jaffe as The High Lama. And, Dmitri Tiomkin’s luscious musical score.
Officer Serpico’s best friend on the police force tells him, “Frankie, no one trusts a cop, don’t take money”. From Peter Mass’ book on New York City’s police corruption, and the true story of the cop who went on record against it. It takes almost the entire film for Serpico to persuade New York’s political establishment to accept the evidence he’s been trying to give them all along – evidence that leads to the Knapp Commission hearings. Director Lumet is
at home, shooting on location, in the city he knows so well, and the film looks it. Dark and luscious lensing by Arthur Ornitz, and strong ensemble work by an familiar cast, filled with Lumet’s favorite actors. But, in my opinion, the smartest decision Sidney Lumet made was hiring Mikis Theodorakis to do the musical score, music that seems to support every image, with lyrical simplicity. One of the all-time great New York location movies, with: Al Pacino as Officer Frank Serpico, surrounded by the Sidney Lumet repertory company.
George Roy Hill
Oddly enough I never saw Slapshot in a movie theater. My buddy Mal Worob had a tape of it in his Manhattan loft. This was even before VHS – it was probably a Betamax. Mal was the first person I knew who had copies of movies at home.
Anyway, I can remember Paul Newman, in an interview saying, “We got more out of less on Slapshot that any movie I was involved in”.
Newman plays the Player/Coach of a failed minor league Hockey Team, that’s being sold behind his back. So, with nothing to lose, he hires the Hanson brothers (real life hockey players), who are notoriously violent and dirty players, and the Chiefs go on a tear. Slapshot has the look of a film that was obviously fun for the actors involved, and it shows, the cast seemingly in on every gag. And that cast includes Newman, Lindsay Crouse, Strother Mortin, Michael Ontkean, and those effervescent Hanson brothers.
The Professionals 1966
Another Seven Samurai spin-off, but this one’s got Lee Marvin, and Burt Lancaster, and Robert Ryan, and Woody Strode, and Jack Palance and Claudia Cardinale, and some of the sauciest, machismo, cowpoke dialogue ever delivered. Richard Brooks’ crusty screenplay constantly parodies itself, and the boys are up to the task. Lee and Burt play tired adventurers, hired for one last mission – bring back the kidnapped wife of a wealthy railroad mogul. They had both fought in Mexico with
Pancho Villa, and are not eager to ride back south of the border but, what the hell, ten thousand dollars a man buys a lot of tamales. Every actor is given quotable dialogue to deliver, and deliver they do. This movie could have been just silly, but director, script, and cast come together here, and the result is a thoroughly entertaining film. Beautiful cinematography by Conrad Hall, and the musical score, by Maurice Jarre, is unexpectedly spicey. Grab this, if you can.
The Thomas Crown Affair 1968
No, not that silly sequel with Pierce Brosnan. I’m talking about the 1968 original with Steve McQueen and Faye Dunaway. A big bank heist, simply for the thrill of it. A wealthy and bored McQueen robs the biggest bank in Boston, for fun. And insurance investigator Faye Dunaway is hired to crack the case. Of course, this is a movie, so they become romantically and competitively involved. She tells him she’s going to win, and get her man. He takes the challenge, and goes out and robs another bank, basically telling her, “I’m going to do it, and you can’t stop me, or catch me”.
Sexy, slickly entertaining suds, with two stars in their prime. And, unlike the silly sequel, someone has to win, and someone has to
lose. The chase becomes a chess match, figuratively, and literally. Great use of split-screen, and Michel Legrand’s Oscar winning score, with a great song, “Windmills of your Mind” woven through it. Bank heists, Polo, Glider planes, and Chess for sex. Ah, the Sixties.
Three Day’s of the Condor 1975
Is there a second CIA, inside the CIA? A question Turner (Robert Redford), a bookish, reader/researcher who works for the CIA asks himself, after returning from lunch to find everyone in his New York office has been assassinated. The Agency thinks he’s involved, and unknown forces are out to silence him. He needs time to sort it all out, and somewhere to hide. He kidnaps Faye Dunawaye, and uses her apartment – a place to think things through. Everyone is after him. Atwood (Addison Powell) whose secret network Turner accidently uncovered. Higgins (Cliff Robertson), the CIA’s Deputy Director who’s trying to bring him in. Wabash (John Houseman), a CIA Mandarin who orders him killed. Joubert (Max von Sydow) a hired assassin who befriends him. With the help of his kidnap victim Kathy (Faye Dunaway), he tries to solve the puzzle.
Condor is a fast paced, top notch CIA spy caper, with a clever, ever-twisting plot, and game cast. Pollock’s second best effort, I think. (Tootsie is hard to beat) Lorenzo Semple’s intelligent screenplay is smart and juicy. Slick cinematography by Owen Roizman, with good use of New York locales. Great stuff.
© 2011 Shaun Costello
KNOWING MORE THAN GOD
By Shaun Costello
In scanning the overwhelming response, in newspapers across the country to the death of Barbaro, I am stunned by the idiotic sentimentality displayed by an ignorant public that, not once, seems to have taken the ordeal of this horse into consideration. On the third Sunday of May 2006, in front of a horrified public, a thoroughbred horse known as Barbaro suffered a fatal injury while running in the Preakness Stakes, a race he was favored to win. I have owned horses a good part of my life and can tell you that no horse recovers from this serious an injury.
A combination of this preposterous sentimentality, and a veterinary team looking to make a name for itself, (no matter how sincere they appear) caused this horse to endure an agonizing and needless eight months in hopeless recovery-limbo, instead of the quick, painless, and humane end it deserved.
The great filly “Ruffian”, who suffered a similar injury, in a similar situation, was euthanized on the spot at Belmont Park, back in the Seventies which, I guess, was a more merciful and sensible decade.
Barbaro endured a shameful eight months, during which ruthless cottage industries sprang up all over the country, making scandalous profits on the agony of an animal. The greeting card industry pitched in with, “Get Well Soon Barbaro” cards, bought by parents, signed by children, and sent where, exactly? To the veterinary barn, where a suffering thoroughbred adjusted his reading glasses and scanned the literary endeavors of his fans? Dishes, statuettes, framed photographs, were all adorned with a likeness of the suffering animal, and displayed in the bedrooms of little girls across America. And where did the profits go? To the relentless bottom feeders, who are willing to make a killing on anything, even a killing itself. America has turned into a culture of crazed sentimentalists who, to feed their need for romantic fantasy, seem to have distanced themselves from reality.
British philosopher Bertrand Russell defined sentimentality as, “Placing more importance on something than God does”. Think about it.
And on pages of newspapers everywhere, Barbaro’s adjectival army, sitting in front of their computers, surrounded by their dying horse trinkets, had their say:
“We love you Barbaro”
“Do horses go to heaven?”
Does anyone wonder how many of the thoroughbred colts and fillies foaled each year in the breeding facilities of Kentucky, and Maryland, and California ever get to a race track? The answer is a miniscule percentage. Another equally miniscule percentage wind up as sport horses, to be ridden in equestrian competitions. So do any of you sentimentalist out there want to know what happens to the rest? They are bought by, what is known in the horse world as, “the killer trucks”, and shipped to Canada, where they are slaughtered, and then sent on to the kitchens of France, where horse meat sells at the local butcher shop for 10 Euros a pound.
But sentimental America wants to close its eyes to that kind of reality, and instead to gather in droves to sign petitions, demanding that the remains of the once proud horse know as Barbaro, be stuffed like Trigger, and put on display in Disneyworld. Maybe this crazed army of sentimentalists will then get what it always wanted, Barbaro, as a stuffed animal.
© 2007 Shaun Costello
I WISH I’D SAID THAT
By Shaun Costello
I’ve always envied those few whose witty weaponry enabled them to defuse an impossible moment with the turn of a phrase.
Sherwood Anderson when reviewing cowboy hero Tom Mix: “They say he rides as if he’s part of the horse, but they didn’t say which part.”
Dorothy Parker: “That woman speaks eighteen languages and can’t say ‘no’ in any of them.”
George S Kaufman: Once asked by a press agent, “How do I get my leading lady’s name into your newspaper?” Kaufman replied, “Shoot her.”
I wish I’d said that, but of course no one asked me. Of all the great verbal kick-turns I’ve read, my favorite happened at a Beverly Hills dinner party back in 1940.
Arthur Hornblow Jr. was one of Hollywood’s most successful producers. From 1933 to 1942 he had a hand in the production of some of Paramount’s biggest hits, before moving on to a stellar career at MGM, producing for luminaries like George Cukor and Billy Wilder. Hornblow’s fame as a producer was equaled however, by his legendary reputation as a party host. His dinner parties were storied events, and making his guest list meant you had “arrived” in the motion picture community.
The massive dining table was set according to the measurements and procedures followed by the staff of the Royal Family for state dinners at Windsor Castle. Each dinner guest was provided with their own personal
servant, who stood at attention behind each chair awaiting the call to the most menial of tasks. The wines served were of the great vintages from the finest Chateau’s of Bordeaux and Burgundy. The guest list read like the who’s who of Hollywood Royalty: Clark Gable, Carole Lombard, Robert Taylor, Claire Trevor, Spencer Tracy, Kate Hepburn, Jimmy Stewart, Bing Crosby, Olivia DeHaviland, Bob Hope, Cary Grant. All dressed to the “Nines”. At their peak. Walking on air.
On this particular evening the name of Herman Mankiewicz had been added to the guest list. Manky, as he was universally known, was one of Hollywood’s mercurial talents, responsible for the screenplays for Citizen Kane, The Enchanted Cottage,
Dinner at Eight, and many others. He was also one of Hollywood’s most notorious drunks, leaving a disgruntled and embarrassed list of dinner hosts in his wake. Arthur Hornblow Jr. had avoided inviting Manky to one of his extravaganzas, fearing bad behavior, and the possibility of an unfortunate incident. But Manky, whose barbed wit and scintillating conversation made him popular on Tinseltown’s party circuit, could not be put off forever. So on this particular evening a nervous Arthur Hornblow Jr. could do nothing more than hope for good behavior from his mercurial guest. He gave strict instructions to the staff to limit Manky’s wine service at dinner and to watch for signs of unusual behavior. That done, Hornblow continued fussing over details he felt necessary in order to present a fabulous evening to his fabulous guests.
The pre-dinner cocktail reception out on the terrace was accompanied by a string quartet, while Hollywood’s finest chattered amongst themselves, totally oblivious to possibility of the existence of anything unglamorous in or out of their own perfect little world. Manky held court with a raconteur’s glib concoction of facts and fables, and his audience loved every moment. Hornblow gazed at the assembly through the window and smiled.
The crystal bell tinkled the announcement of a dinner at the ready, and the guest list with the grace born of celebrity and assurance glided through the huge doorway into the dining chamber, the epicenter of Hornblow’s mansion. Everyone found their appropriate places with Hornblow at the head of the enormous table, and his wife Myrna Loy sitting opposite. The wines were greeted with ooohs and ahhhs, and each course served was a tour de force in epicurean perfection. Arthur Hornblow Jr, surveyed his table with a sense of satisfaction thinking to himself. “Well Arthur, you’ve done it again. Everything is as it should be.”
Gone unnoticed amidst all this perfection was an unusually quiet Herman Mankiewicz. Although his wine flow had been curtailed at the dinner table, he had consumed seven or eight martinis during the pre dinner festivities and was plastered. He sat staring straight ahead, weaving ever so slightly to his left and then his right, then slightly forward and suddenly vomited into his soup.
What followed was the longest pause in the history of Tinseltown. No one moved. No one made eye contact with anyone else. Fifty dinner guests sat silent and motionless, perhaps hoping on the off chance, that God might appear and, in his benevolence somehow make things right. But God went unneeded on this particular evening. Manky, seemingly recovered from his trance-like stupor looked down at the evidence of his mischief, then slowly lifted his head and turned in the direction of his horrified host and said, “Not to worry Arthur. The white wine came up with the fish.”
I wish I’d said that. I wish I’d been there.
© 2006 Shaun Costello/New York Times Sunday Magazine
I think Jimmy Toback sucks, and so should you.
By Shaun Costello
Every once in a great while, an opportunity presents itself to right a great wrong, to set the record straight, to win one for the Gipper. Permit me to give you an example of how I obnoxiously and joyfully behaved when I got the worst of all film directors accidentally in my cross hairs. Some time in 1983, I paid seven dollars to see, arguably, the worst film ever made. It was “Exposed”, starring Nastassia Kinsky (she of the snake pic) and Rudolph Nureyev (I’m not making this up). Anyway, about half way through this excruciatingly putrid film, and just before I walked out of the theater, Nureyev, who plays a violinist, approaches Nasty Kinsky from behind and, while fingering her face like frets on a fiddle, he begins to run his bow across her bare breasts, as she moans in ecstasy, “Oh yes, play me, play me”.
Well, that was just about my limit, and I swore to myself that if I ever ran across that talentless, gambling addicted, over-achiever Jimmy Toback, who directed this piece of drek, that vengeance would be mine.
OK, fast forward to about 1988. I’m sitting with a few friends watching a movie; I don’t remember which one, at the Ziegfeld Theater, which was then Manhattan’s best film venue. After the tail credits, the house lights come up and, as we’re putting on our coats, one of my friends say’s, “Hey, isn’t that Jimmy Toback?” It was one of those Marlon Brando diamond bullet in the forehead moments that come all too infrequently in a man’s life, but I was up to it. At just about the top of my lungs, I screamed across the crowded theater, “Hey Toback, I sat through half an hour of EXPOSED, and you owe me seven bucks, now pay up!” Toback, slime that he was (and I’m sure still is), bolted, running for one of the side doors of the theater, leaving behind the girl he was with. What a toad. Anyway, I’m sure everyone within earshot thought I was nuts, but I felt like a million bucks. Vengeance was finally mine, and the cowardly behavior of Toback just about made my year. The moral of this tale, if there is one, is the next time opportunity knocks – open the door.
© 2007 Shaun Costello
The ten best American films I can think of that
were produced by Hollywood’s studio system.
A moment here, to talk about criteria. My selection process was based on those films, whose existence depended on the creative conveyor belt of Hollywood’s film factories, that began with the Silents of the Twenties, and peaked with the well organized, and marvelous output of the Thirties and Forties. The major studios were run by hard nosed businessmen with names like Mayer, and Zanuck, and Warner, and Cohn; whose methods for getting a product to market varied little from their cousins back East, in New York’s Garment Center. Everyone who worked in movies back then was under contract; writers, directors, producers, scenic artists, technicians, and of course, movie stars. The production schedules were tight, and the objective was to get the maximum amount of product to the marketplace, with the minimum amount of time and cost. Scratch a Movie Mogul, and find a Garmento? Sure, why not – the system worked. And, every so often, the right elements fell into place, usually by happenstance, and resulted in memorable motion pictures. The appropriate writer for the script, the right actor for the part, a crew that knew its business, a savvy producer to crack a whip, and the right director, with the vision and stamina to see the project through. And the result was the everlasting language of movies, woven forever into the fabric of the American syllabus. Those lines that live forever: “Of all the gin joints, in all the world”………. “Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain”……….. “Take ‘em to Missouri, Matt”………. “Leave the gun. Take the cannoli’s”………… “I’m on toppa the world, Ma”………. “Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn”………… “Badges? We don’ need no stinkin’ badges”……….“I coulda been a contender. I coulda been somebody”. American films, produced through the Hollywood Studio System.
I struggled with this, and many of you will find fault with my choices but, for better or worse, here they are:
Red River 1948
As American as it gets. Hawks’ memorable tapestry of the blazing of the Chisholm Trail. The cattle were in Texas, but the Rail Head was in Abilene Kansas. And driving a huge and ornery herd of cattle, for the very first time, across the Red River, over mountain ranges, through hostile Indian territory, risking misadventure with nature and bands of rustlers, was no easy business.
Hawks, probably Hollywood’s best dialogue director, made John Wayne almost believable. Lots of crusty, spicy cowpoke dialogue, that might be corny in the hands of another director, but Hawks pulls it off.
It’s dawn on the range, and the men and the cattle are ready. Hawks’ camera does a slow, minute-long, 360 pan across the faces of cowboy after cowboy, beginning and ending on Wayne, who looks to Montgomery Clift and finally say’s, “Take ‘em to Missouri, Matt”. Clift raises his hat and whoops the first of many, and the next cowboy does the same, and in quick cuts now, face after face, whoop after whoop, until, finally driven by the drama of the moment, the music swells, and the herd begins to move. It’s one of the great moments in movie history and, if you haven’t experienced it – shame on you.
The Treasure of the Sierra Madre 1948
Greed and paranoia in the Mexican Mountains. Huston’s masterpiece, and an Oscar for his Dad. Huston wrote the part for his father, Walter, to play. What gold does to men’s lives. Howard (Houston) foretells of the possibilities of sudden wealth turning men against each other, but Dobbs (Bogart) say’s not him. He’d take only what he needed, and not a bit more. And of course, it’s Dobbs who turns rotten.
Absolutely perfect from beginning to end, and as good as movies get
The Best Years of Our Lives 1946
The War over, three men meet on the transport plane taking them home to Boone City. A middle-aged Army Sargeant (Fredric March), a decorated Flyboy (Dana Andrews), and a Sailor with hooks for hands (Harold Russell – a real-life vet amputee, who gives a startlingly believable performance). This film was shot in the time which it depicts, and the language, which might seem corny and dated now, is how people spoke back then. The right cast, particularly March and Myrna Loy, the right story, and a savvy director turn this into one of the real champs. Best moment: Dana Andrews in the bomber shell.
On the Waterfront 1954
So, you have to ask yourself, “Were there really commies in Hollywood, after WWII, and what message were they sending?” Here, Director Elia Kazan, ever embittered by the McCarthy-driven witch hunt that victimized him, certainly serves up a leftist theme, but who cares. Scorching drama, delivered by Brando’s ex pug, Malden’s stalwart Priest, and Cobb’s gangster brother, all delivering Budd Schulberg’s crisp, believable dialogue make this one memorable. Also great ensemble work by Kazan’s bit players, some of whom were ex prize fighters and looked it. Overlooked often, is Leonard Bernstein’s simple and haunting score, and Boris Kaufman’s all-to-real, black and white cinematography. If you’ve seen it, see it again. If you haven’t, what are you waiting for?
Citizen Kane 1941
The one and only. Movies would never be the same again. The story goes, that it was Nelson Rockefeller (Just who did you think the ‘R” in RKO was, anyway?), who heard the Mercury Theater of the Air’s now-infamous radio broadcast of War of the Worlds, and called the Studio to suggest bringing this young radio guy, Welles, out to Hollywood for a look. So, Welles’ Mercury Theater of the Air troupe moved out to Los Angeles, and the rest is history.
“Rosebud” – what was it, anyway. From the opening Newsreel, to the screening room scene, to a life revealed, every moment dazzles. Innovations, one after the other – from Greg Toland’s mesmerizing lens, to the rapid fire editing, to Welles’ brilliant direction, to the debut of all those newbie’s from radio – it was all so new and fresh. The screenplay, by Welles and Herman Mankiewicz, has two camps; critic Pauline Kael whose expository essay “Raising Kane”, suggests Manky to be the prime mover, with Welles making additions here and there. Peter Bogdanovich, whose response to Kael was his own essay, “Kane Mutiny”, published in Esquire, refuted Kael’s claims. Years later, it was revealed that Bogdanovich’s piece was actually penned by Welles. Who cares, really? The film’s the thing, and there’s just nothing like it.
The Wizard of Oz 1939
Well, because! Because of the wonderful things he does. I wanted to include a musical, and no other Hollywood Musical matches Dorothy’s magical tornado-assisted journey from Kansas to Oz, and back again. Nothing even comes close. It’s as fresh and appealing to children today, as it was when it first opened seventy years ago. Seventy years – hard to imagine. Garland, and Bolger, and Lahr, and Haley, and Frank Morgan’s Wizard, and Magaret Hamilton’s Wicked Witchiness, and Billie Burke’s Glinda. And all those Munchkins, who live Somewhere, Over the Rainbow. It’s just all so perfect, and it made the world a better place.
I’ll bet I surprised you with this one. Altman’s scathingly hilarious take on Country Music, and the shrine it lives in. The word got out, Robert Altman was on location shooting some kind of musical, and he was letting the cast members write their own songs. Well, that’s about all it took for actors from Altman’s older films to start showing up on the set. And Altman wrote them in, playing themselves, and they improvised their scenes with other cast members. Julie Christie and Elliot Gould were among them. It was a chaotically joyful atmosphere.
OK, during a political campaign in the city of Nashville, the story drifts lazily through the lives of several of its citizens – some musicians, some wannabe’s, and some just plain folks. The vignettes are so absorbing, and the music so great, that it doesn’t seem to matter that the movie seems to have no central theme – but it does. Incredible performances by an insane Barbara Harris, and far too many actors to name. Just about the time when you begin wondering what this thing is all about (we’re now almost two hours into it with no apparent story in sight), all of the characters converge at the site of a political rally. And then it happens – someone we’ve known all along, unexpectedly pulls out a gun and starts shooting. And cast members start falling. And in the midst of chaos, the craziest member in the cast, Barbara Harris, a wannabe lounge singer with no voice, picks up the microphone and begins to sing, somehow calming the terrified onlookers. Nashville Is an eyeful and an earful, but most of all, it’s joyfully entertaining.
“I’m mad as hell, and I ‘m not going to take it any more”. So say’s Howard Beale, former Mandarin of television, and currently the madman of the airwaves. Lumet’s crafty direction, pretty much letting his cast do their thing, comes in second here, to what may be the greatest screenplay ever written. Paddy Chayevsky’s brilliantly prophetic script foresaw the future of television. In painting a picture of a television network gone mad, he basically created Fox News, long before Rupert Murdoch ever wrote the check. A sexy cast, including William Holden, Faye Dunaway, Peter Finch, Robert Duvall, and Ned Beatty in a scene you’ll never forget.
The Godfather 1972
Francis Ford Coppola
The Godfather Part Two
Francis Ford Coppola
Ok, I know I’m cheating here, but I’m going to combine them as one movie. I didn’t want the Godfather Saga taking up twenty percent of the list. Find forgiveness in your heart. Vito Corleone’s clan seems to take up more than its share of space in the American psyche. Part Two may be an even better movie than its predecessor. From Clemenza’s “Leave the gun, Take the cannoli’s”, to Hyman Roth’s “Michael, we’re bigger than US Steel”, it’s a marvelous narrative of two generations of a Mafia crime family. Really, picture perfect in every way. Coppola’s all-seeing eye seems everywhere, in every detail, no matter how small. He brought the A-Team to this one, from Gordon Willis’ dark images to Nino Rota’s music. Splendid!
You must remember this. Hollywood’s greatest accident, and maybe the all-time most perfect script. Just a production number on Jack Warner’s long list of propaganda projects for Washington, but somehow, everything fell into place. Bogart and Bergman, who seldom spoke to each other off-camera, and never struck up a friendship, came off as perhaps the most romantic couple in the history of movies. Warner’s stock company filled out the cast perfectly, and that song – As Time Goes By. Assigned to write the screenplay, totally by happenstance, were those happy go lucky Epstein twins, Julius and Philip, who would pen perfection, much to their own surprise. From top to bottom, no one had any idea that this little propaganda vehicle would wind up to be one of Hollywood’s greatest classics.
But there was a problem. The edited film made no sense. Jack Warner hated it, and said it was unfixable. Editor Owen Marks sat there with Director Michael Curtiz trying every trick he could think of. It was the ending. Bogart sends Bergman off with Henreid to the waiting plane. Major Strasser shows up and is shot by Claude Raines, much to Bogey’s surprise. But it doesn’t seem to make any sense. Warner drags the Epstein boys off their tennis court and orders them into the editing room. When they see the ending they’re stunned. “What have you done to our script?”, they ask Curtiz and Marks. Julius Epstein tells Marks to reverse the order of two close-up reaction takes during the end of the scene. Voila, a classic is born. And the Epsteins return to their tennis game. The Fundamental things apply, as time goes by.
© 2011 Shaun Costello
MY TEN FAVORITE EUROPEAN FILMS
(This morning, anyway)
8 and 1/2 1963
Probably my all-time fave film, period. Responsibility visited, and avoided at all cost. Oh, that Guido.
Grand Illusion 1937
When asked to name his ten favorite movies, Orson Welles replied. “Oh, that’s easy, Grand Illusion, and nine others”.
The Bicycle Thief 1948
DeSica’s poignant look at a father and son in ravaged post-war Rome.
The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie 1972
Bunuel’s love affair with, and hilarious take on the Bourgeoisie – what they do, what they say, how they think – If they do, if they say, if they think. A surreal comedy – the Bunuel way.
Belmondo and Seberg, on the run. Sometimes silly, often dazzling. Godard’s best, I think. And, the best of the French New Wave.
Gilligan’s Island for grown-ups.
Beauty and the Beast 1946
Well, you know the story. Cocteau’s masterpiece, and lovely to look at. Say, is that wall moving?
Mr. Hulot’s Holiday 1953
The hapless Hulot heads for the seashore. A delightful comedy in mime, with an elastic Tati surviving one catastrophic situation after another. My two fave scenes are The Train Station, and that Taffy that never quite reaches the sand.
Claire’s Knee 1970
At an alpine lake resort, a 35 year old Jerome is struck dumb by teenage Claire. If he could just touch her knee, maybe that would be enough. Sensually photographed by Nestor Almendros, this is Rohmer’s best effort, I think. An intelligent film, meant for an intelligent audience.
Lang’s silent sci-fi dazzler. Hard to imagine now, the audience’s reaction in 1927, to these visionary images. Many have not scene this – don’t be one of them.
© 2011 Shaun Costello
SIC SEMPER TYRANNUS
Surviving Catholic Education
By Shaun Costello
This story is excerpted from my childhood memoir
THE LAST TIME I SAW JESUS
Surviving God and Elvis in the time of ‘Duck and Cover’
I suppose I could blame all subsequent events, and ill advised decisions I made in my life on the eight years I spent as a victim of the Sisters of the Immaculate Conception, but I don’t. I sensed, even as a child, that they were no more or less than a necessary evil (at least my parents thought they were necessary) placed in my path to overcome by what whatever means was at my disposal. Back then little thought was given by Catholic families regarding their participation in the selection process available to them in choosing a primary school for their children. They just found the nearest Catholic school, packed a lunch, and off we went. Off to the welcoming arms of a sociopathetic cult of psychological misfits who had been cloistered away from the evils of an all too real world that, even on their best days, they seemed powerless to inhabit. During my eight years of ecclesiastical incarceration I never saw anyone who remotely resembled Ingrid Bergman, not to mention Father Crosby.
Early on, I came to the conclusion that the two most important elements in a Catholic education were penmanship, and lining up in silence. Ball point pens were strictly forbidden, because only a true fountain pen could produce the perfect script demanded by the good sisters. As for the silent line up, the merry cacophony of lunchtime playground mischief came to an abrupt halt the moment the dour penguin shook her hand bell. The shuffle of feet was the only sound as the children found their classmates and silently lined up, awaiting the signal to march off to an afternoon’s lesson in history, which probably included the torture and martyrdom of Saint Isaac Jogues at the hands of the evil Huron Indians. They pulled out his fingernails, and he would not renounce his faith. They pulled out his toenails, and he would not renounce his faith. They gouged out his eyes, and he still would not renounce his faith. Finally, an exasperated Big Chief Huron, fed up with Isaac’s saintliness, cut out his heart and ate it, hoping to ingest some of the holy man’s courage. And old Isaac stood there, bound and gagged, without fingernails or toenails, a big hole in his chest where his heart used to be, and Big Chief Huron, picking pieces of Isaac’s aorta from between his teeth, again demanded spiritual surrender. Not this time Tonto. The old man simply shook his head in a bold expression of saintly triumph over the heathen redskin. Tears in her eyes, Sister Immaculata stopped reading and put down the third grade American History text from which she had read this lesson in God’s victory over the great unwashed.
It was at this point that she noticed the behavior of three arch criminals; myself, Jim Freeney, and Joe Arrico, who had obviously paid no attention to this valuable lesson and instead, had been engaged in spitball wars in the back row. With these three felons in tow, Sister Immaculata made haste for the music room, where every afternoon the Fur Elise was played badly for hours. The music room doubled as punishment chamber during school hours, and was the only room in the building where nuns noticeably smiled. The young hooligans were instructed to lean against the wall with the backs of their legs extended, awaiting Sister’s caress. Reaching into the closet, Sister Immaculata took out a pointer. It was 36 inches long, round, and pointed at the tip, resembling almost exactly the canes used to administer corporal punishment in the third world, much to the horror of self righteous Americana. It came down with a loud whack on the back of poor Joe Arrico’s thigh, as he screamed in pain and begged her to stop. She ignored his screaming pleas and promises of good behavior, and the pointer came down again. I’m not sure how many times she hit him, but it was several, and all the time she smiled. Her screaming, pleading victim was nine years old. Jim Freeney was next with the same result. When it came my turn I was half way to the door before she caught on to the fact that I was not going to be this woman’s pointer fodder. Safely through the door I ran down the hall and all the way home.
Out of breath, I told my mother what had happened, and her reaction was puzzling. She told me that Sister was always right, and that I must have done something to deserve the punishment I had escaped, and that the only course open to me was to go right back to school, lean on that music room wall and take my punishment like the little criminal I undoubtedly was. I refused. This resulted in a tumultuous few days between my family and the school which, after some posturing, was legally bound to take me back, even though I had not behaved up to the standard of the church’s willing martyrs. Isaac, eat your heart out, or someone else will.
The daily routine at Our Lady Queen of Martyrs school began at 8:30AM, as children began assembling in the school’s playground. At precisely 8:45, each and every morning, Sister’s hand bell would announce the end of playground hi-jinks, and the beginning of the serious business of lining up in silence. The children lined up by class, and began the silent shuffle into the school building, with the little ones entering first, and the eighth graders bringing up the rear.
There was a uniform dress code at the school. Boys wore navy blue trousers, a white long sleeved shirt, and a navy blue tie, usually restrained by a tie clasp. Competition for the coolest tie clasp was intense. Girls wore blue jumpers, a white short sleeved blouse, and navy blue knee socks. The supreme beings at the school, the eighth graders, were distinguished from the rest of the lower flotsam by the addition of blue blazers for the boys, and some kind of pin, probably something like “The Order of the Eternal Virgin” for the girls. Eighth graders were looked up to by the rest of us as perfect examples of children who, through diligence and prayer, walked in lock step with the Holy Trinity. They were also bigger than we were and stole our baseball cards and lunch money, but I guess that’s another issue.
Children at Our Lady Queen of Martyrs were divided into three separate and distinct groups. The first were God’s favorites. These kids all had 98 academic averages, spotless uniforms, heavenly singing voices, inkless fingers, wrote in perfect script, got the best parts in the school play, made speeches at school assemblies, and were generally thought of by the faculty as, “Saints of the Future.” The second group were the kids that God tolerated. They were probably not heaven bound but, through hard work and sacrifice, they might just make it to the next level; even though they had ink stained fingers, couldn’t remember latin lyrics, spent too much time looking out the window, wrote illegibly, occasionally suffered from “ring around the collar”, were easily confused by the rituals of the Catholic Liturgy, and would probably wind up mowing the lawns of the “Saints of the Future.” Then there was the third group. These were the kids to whom God’s back was turned. The lepers of the Liturgy. They had no shot whatsoever at salvation, and were destined for the big barbeque, to burn in the fires of hell for all eternity. They had dirty finger nails, unkempt hair, ink stains covering their hands and clothes, had close relatives who spoke a foreign languge, ate paste in art class, threw up in hallways, had no reverence for the sainthood, and were to be generally pitied as hopeless creatures, destined for a life outside of God’s plan.
I guess that I was a member of group number two; tolerated by God, a distant possibility for salvation, a perpetrator of the ink stain, a barely average student, and a liturgical numbskull, but if I played my cards right I just might make it to the next level, wherever that was.
As kids filtered into their classrooms, the first stop was the Cloak Room. This was a large closet in the back, the full width of the classroom (about thirty feet) and about six feet deep, lined with shelves, under which were coat hooks, and plenty of space to deposit lunch boxes, galoshes, and whatever else kids brought to school. No one wore cloaks of course, but that’s what the sisters called it, so we did too. The hanging up of hats and coats was followed by a short but robust period of hair pulling, name calling, tripping, strangling, head locking, eye gouging, and general mayhem, after which the little innocents would emerge from the cloak room ready for a morning of inspiration and enlightenment, much to the delight of the good sisters.
The school building, a kind of quasi American gothic structure, had eight classrooms of identical size and layout. The classrooms were large, about 60×30, with three walls covered with blackboards and one with windows. About six rows of desks, ten deep, all faced Sister’s large wooden desk, which was centered in front of the class. A student/teacher ratio of 60 to 1. Tough numbers. The student’s desks had hinged tops, allowing for storage inside, an indentation at the front where pencils and pens could lie undisturbed, and a working inkwell. No one really used the inkwells, other than for pranks, but they had always been there, so there they would stay. Until the day when Petey Cataldo, a kid who didn’t talk much and threw up a lot, pissed in each and every inkwell in our class. Sixty inkwells is a lot of piss, and there were many versions of Petey’s triumph. One had Petey sneaking in after school and actually pissing in all our inkwells. The other, and generally accepted version, had Petey peeing in a container for a week. Then when he felt he had enough for the job at hand, he slipped into school after closing, and filled all the inkwells with the product of his efforts. Anyway, no one ever saw Petey again. The rumor was that he had been sent to some kind of special school for kids who threw up a lot. Another rumor had him incarcerated in an institution for recalcitrant Catholics, but no one really believed that. His image lived on in the folklore of the school as a revered personage, a crusader, the boy who had an answer. Of course none of us knew what the question had been, but that didn’t matter. Petey had guts, and for us that was enough.
Throughout the morning the subjects taught by Sister would change at Sister’s whim. In the middle of a History lesson, Sister would suddenly announce,” We will now take out our Arithmetic textbooks.” And this was sister’s segue to the world of mathematics. As the big institutional clock on the classroom wall neared 12 noon all eyes followed the second hand, until that magical moment that happened each and every school day at exactly noon, when the opening chords of the most famous of all John Philip Sousa Marches would play at a decible level that could have awakened the Saints from their eternal sleep, the classroom doors were thrown open and the lunchtime march of the children would begin. Three hundred little kiddies for Christ would stomp down the stairwells and hallways of the school until they were deposited, music still playing, outside the huge front doors, to the delight and chagrin of the terrified lunch counters of Austin Street.
Austin Street was the main commercial drag in Forest Hills. Supermarkets, clothing stores, Woolworths Five and Dime, the Cameo Bowling Alley, drug stores, florists, Pinsky’s Stationary, a travel agency, Glindermann’s German Delicatessen, Vincent’s Shoe Repair, and various spots where lunch could be had cheaply, if you knew what to order. Most kids brought their own lunch to school in little metal lunch boxes. A peanut butter and jelly sandwich, and a banana, or maybe a few cookies, was pretty typical. The school provided half pint containers of milk, free of charge, to kids who brought their own lunch. If you had some money in your pocket, Austin Street’s menu was varied. The Sutton Hall Pharmacy offered an order of rye toast for 10 cents which could be washed down with a lemon coke, also priced at 10 cents. The newly opened Pizza Prince offered a slice for 20 cents, but kids were still suspicious of pizza. The various lunch counters along the Street offered a variety of cheap filler. An order of french fries was 20 cents, cream cheese on date nut bread could be had for as much as 40 cents, a burger with a hole in the middle from White Tower was a quarter, and various other offerings were priced accordingly. If you were really flush, and I’m talking over a dollar here, and you were up for some serious adventure, Austin Street offered “Hamburger Express”. A huge success from the day it opened, “Hamburger Express” delivered your Burger DeLux Platter right to your hungry little face on the flatbed rolling stock of Lionel model trains. The walls were covered with train posters and train photographs, and along the inside part of the counter ran the tracks themselves. The tracks that carried the trains that towed the flatbed cars that brought your lunch. The waitresses wore little train engineer caps that said “Hamburger Express” across the brim, and train whistles and bells and authentic trainlike noises of all sorts could be heard throughout the place. If you could afford it “Hamburger Express” was definitely the lunchtime venue of choice.
The boys at Our Lady Queen of Martyrs knew about trains. They knew from their earlier days in The Painted Mountains, where they buried their compadres in the Cemetery of unnamed men. They lived without food and water, and became tempered like steel; sinewy leathery boys, whose sole purpose in life was blowing up trains for Pancho Villa, and the glory of the revolution. They knew just how many sticks of dynamite it took to blow a munitions train to hell and gone. And just how many toothpicks it took to cause a derailment that would dump a Cheeseburger DeLuxe into some unsuspecting woman’s lap. These boys knew about trains. And how to stop them.
Finally, “Hamburger Express”, in an effort to keep their trains on the tracks, and to put a stop to the mischief of the boys from the Painted Mountains, hired its own security guard. They dressed him up as a train engineer, and although he greeted customers as they came in, and his demeanor was friendly, even jovial, he was definitely railroad security. This new addition created a more challenging atmosphere. And if that wasn’t enough, possible anti railroad weaponry; ketchup, mustard, toothpicks, pickles, were all removed from the counter until the arrival of your meal, and scooped up the minute they were used. These, and other counter-revolutionary tactics were employed by management in an all-out effort to put a stop to the work of Pancho Villa’s little heros. Additional security didn’t stop Butch and Sundance, and by God it wouldn’t stop Villa’s boys. So, like their days back in the Painted Mountains, they simply brought their own stuff. Toothpicks, gum, silly putty, pencils were all imported from home. And with the advent of watchful railroad security, diversionary tactics were required, usually in the form of a vomiting boy. A kid throwing up in a restaurant was very bad for business, so the boy who was assigned the job of “Diversion Puker” was picked up by the railroad security guy the minute he pretended to throw up on the counter, and carried outside to the sidewalk. With security outside, the bedlam of the entire revolution was free to take place right there inside “Hamburger Express”. Four to five derailments could happen in a matter of seconds, with burgers, milkshakes, banana Splits, and lemon cokes all flying helter-skelter, from their respective flatbeds to the laps of unsuspecting and shrieking customers, as total chaos reigned supreme in the little restaurant. Villa’s vigilantes had struck again.
With the revolution going well, it was time to return to Our Lady Queen of Martyrs for an afternoon of guessing just how many arrows Saint Sebastian was stuck with, and what it all meant anyway. At exactly 3 PM the Sousa march would begin, the classroom doors would be thrown open and the afternoon version of “The March of the Children” would take place. The daily schedule at OLQM was identical except for Wednesdays. On Wednesdays class would end at 2:30 and the entire student body would be marched a short distance to the church, where something mysterious called Benediction took place. This was a wealthy parish and the church looked it. The building was a kind of neo gothic mini-cathedral, with pictures and statues of people with their internal organs revealed, and candles burning everywhere. The shared public Catholic ritual is a theatrical assault on the senses, and Benediction was a perfect example. The church’s altar was fronted by a large proscenium, pretty much like the stage at Radio City Music Hall, where men wearing colorful satin outfits spoke, chanted, and sang in a dead language, and shook ornate little balls filled with incense (usually frankincense or myrrh), as the organ began the prelude to yet another hymn in Latin. I have no more clue today, than I did back then, as to the meaning or significance of Benediction, but I never forgot the music. The main hymn was something called “Tantum Ergo” and, although, at the time, I have no idea what it meant, it was a catchy tune that seemed to go well with the accompanying visuals and incense. In Latin (the only way I ever heard it) it went like this:
“Tantum ergo Sacramentum Ve-ne-remur cernu-I
Et antiquum documentum Novo cedat ri-tu-I
Praestat fi-des supplementum sensu-um de fectu-I”
(exotically entertaining in a dead language kind of way)
The English translation of this stanza goes like this:
“So great a sacrament, therefore let us worship
Bowed down; And let the ancient example give way
To a new rite; Let faith bestow a support
To the defect of the senses.”
Not much better in English, is it? Anyway that was Benediction, and when it was over we silently filed out of the church and back into the community.
I want to go on record here as having hated Richard O’Leary. I hated him then and I probably still do. In between the end of the afternoon March of the Children and the beginning of whatever came next, there was a certain amount of after school lingering. I was never privy to what girls talked about, but boys talked about gory stuff like beheadings and general human dismemberment, fights they had heard about that were really bloody, movie star suicides they learned about listening to their parents, local gossip like somebody’s mother who was arrested for shoplifting, and when they ran out of the juicy stuff there was always sports. Richard O’Leary was one of these kids who wanted you to think that no matter what you knew, he knew more. He always knew more, and it really didn’t matter about what. I liked sports. I liked to watch sports on TV. I liked to go Yankee games. But I was just not one of these kids who memorized stats. I knew that Whitey Ford was a good pitcher, but I didn’t know his lifetime record against lefty hitting. And, for the record, I have to confess to not caring. But Richard O’Leary knew, or at least pretended he did. Anyway, on this particular afternoon I had been accidentally equipped with a valuable statistic, Willie Mays’ career batting average. I read it in a magazine the day before, and knew that it was 321. Valuable information to have at my disposal, in between beheadings and shop lifting arrests. So when the opportunity presented itself, and I spoke right up, “Mays has got to be the best pure hitter in baseball, his career batting average is 321.” And without skipping a beat that rotten Richard O’Leary jumped right in. “Not against right handed pitching it’s not. Against righties he only hits 289. The man is a loser.” I had suffered a moment of psychological castration. I went from a kid who knew something to a kid who knew nothing. And not only that, but Willie Mays was now a loser. By the time I was wondering if I had anything in my pocket sharp enough to gouge out O’leary’s eyes he was already correcting some other kid on some other statistic. Another psychological castration. Another disappointed kid. Another triumph for that little weasel. Later that night, in between the light’s going out in my room and falling asleep, I fantasized about a proper vengeance. About an appropriate fate for that little know it all. About justice.
Death Row at Sing Sing Prison is in a separate and cloistered part of the facility. A long dark hallway where only one cell is lit. Outside the cell is the head guard and Father Spinelli, the prison Chaplain. Inside that one lit cell is a kid in striped prison garb, shackled hands and feet, and a terrified look on his face. It’s Richard O’Leary.
The guard speaks as he puts a key in the door, “Its Time son. Get a hold of yourself. Father Spinelli is here to hear your confession.”
“Son, are you sorry for all the sins of your past life and……”
“What confession? I’m not confessing anything. This is someboby’s dream. I’m a kid. You can’t execute kids. You can’t do anything to me.”
“Et ego te absolvo a peccatis tuis in nomine…..”
“Te absolvo a peccatis tuis….”
“I’m a kid, you jerk. You can’t do anything to me.”
“Ordinarily I’d agree with you son, but not after what you said in court.”
“Deus Pater misericordiarum…..”
“What do you mean? What are you talking about? What did I say in court?”
“About Willie Mays.”
“In nomine Patris, et filii………”
The guard, the Priest, and O’Leary are now slowly walking down the long dark hallway toward the brightly lit execution chamber, where the Warden stands, with a paper in his hand.
“About Willie Mays being a loser. About his average against right handed pitching.”
“ego te absolvo a peccatis….”
“So?….I’m right. He IS a loser.”
“You forgot about the judge son. Big Giants fan. Huge. Big Mays fan. You shouldn’t have said that son.”
“In deus Pater nostrum tuum…….”
“I’m a kid. I can say anything I want.”
“The Warden will ask you if you want your head shaved, son. I’d do it. The last kid, Old Sparky set his hair on fire. That was just before his head melted. What a stink. Two of the witnesses puked.”
“In Nomine Patris, et filii, et spiritus sancti……..”
The threesome is now passing the Tombstone Shop on their way to the Execution Chamber, and O’Leary’s eyes are as big as half dollars as he sees the worker carving an epitaph on a Tombstone that reads; “HERE LIES RICHARD O’LEARY WHO KNEW WILLIE MAYS’ BATTING AVERAGE AGAINST RIGHT HANDED PITCHING. LOOK WHERE IT GOT HIM.”
“Te absolvo a peccatis….”
“Mommie……I want my Mommie………Mommieeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee..”
“You Richard O’Leary, having been found guilty of crimes beyond the pale, are heretofore to be put to death by means of electrocution, on this day……
In excelsis deo ordo paenitintiae…..”
“Get a hold of yourself son……..Ohhhhhh, he pooped his pants, What a stink…….”
As the clock strikes midnight the Warden nods to the Executioner, who throws the switch that sends the room into a tumult of buzzes and screams and shrieks and stinking hair, while outside house lights all over Dutchess County dim slightly as the life is fried out of Richard O’Leary’s melting body, leaving his lifeless form hanging, suspended by “Old Sparky’s” leather straps. Dead, and finally silent.
My bedroom ceiling never looked so good. Smiling, I could feel my lips moving before I heard the words. Those appropriate words. Those final words – “Sic semper tyrannus”.
© 2008 Shaun Costello
THE KEYS TO THE KINGDOM
By Shaun Costello
This story is excerpted from my childhood memoir
THE LAST TIME I SAW JESUS
Surviving God and Elvis in the time of ‘Duck and Cover’
My mother’s side of my family had been dancers for two generations at least, and dancers, by the nature of their art, are athletes. In order to do what they do they must have balance, and rhythm, and reflexes, and timing; the very same qualifications as any good athlete. Hang time was as important for Fred Astaire as it was for Michael Jordan. My father, on the other hand, danced with the grace of a cinder block. In the great genetic crap shoot, even though I longed for the life of an athlete; to wear a uniform, to score the winning run, to enjoy the camaraderie and admiration of my team mates, to be accepted as a boy of achievement on my own terms, I sadly wound up with the grace and élan of a cinder block. So when the athletic opportunities at The Community House presented themselves, I pounced. Basketball, baseball, swimming, boxing, lacrosse, field hockey, badminton; I tried them all. My strategy was to find a sport at which I could excel, somehow compensating for my physical shortcomings. I tried sport after sport with disappointing results. I couldn’t hit, I couldn’t throw, I couldn’t rebound, I couldn’t dribble, I couldn’t punch but, but for a reason known only in heaven, God decided to cut me some slack. I could shoot a basketball.
I wasn’t Jerry West, but I wasn’t embarrassing either, so I worked on it. Day after day, week after week, I practiced shooting basketballs. When the three o’clock bell rang at school, I would race over to The Community House, hoping to be the first one in the gym. So one afternoon, out of breath from running the five blocks from school carrying all my schoolbooks, I arrived at the empty Community House. It seemed like I had achieved my goal of being the first to arrive, but something made me stop outside the front door. Whoever opened the building for the afternoon session had left the keys in the door. There were maybe thirty keys on a huge metal ring, probably the keys to every door inside the building. Without a moment’s hesitation, looking both ways to make sure no one saw me do it, I snatched the keys from the front door and slipped them into my pocket. I had no idea what I would do with them, but something told me that having these keys was to my benefit.
The Community House was open from 3 to 5 in the afternoons, and 7 to 9 in the evenings. From 5 to 7, with Mr. Wonderly, who was the manager, and the colored custodian both out having dinner, the building would be empty, and available for solitary exploration. I hung around in the park across the street, and saw Mr. Wonderly and the custodian make their meal-time exits. It was now or never, so I slipped the key into the front door, and entered the empty building. One by one I began opening all the inside doors using my new set of keys: the office, the equipment room which was filled with basketballs, baseball bats, catcher’s masks, badminton racquets, and every imaginable form of sports apparatus, the trophy cabinet, the storage room, the boxing gym, the swimming pool, and finally the locker rooms. I hesitated outside the girl’s locker room, wondering whether this act was a matter for the confessional, and rationalized to myself that I was not a sinner, I was an explorer. So I opened the door. It was pretty much the same as the boy’s locker room. There were lockers, benches, a bathroom, a shower room, and the same combined odors of disinfectant, and chlorine from the pool. Above one row of lockers were six casement windows, each about three feet wide and six feet high, and covered with many layers of paint to insure privacy. I wondered where these windows were relative to the outside of the building, so I slipped out the back door and reconnoitered. There was a kind of drainage or ventilation pit with cement walls about six feet deep along the side of the building and inside this pit were all six windows, painted over and ignored. It occurred to me that an enterprising young man who scraped tiny viewing holes in the paint on the inside of the windows might gain visual access to the entire girl’s locker room from the privacy of this drainage pit. Yikes.
So back inside, I climbed up on the row of lockers and did just that. Using the borrowed keys I scraped small slits, maybe an inch by a quarter inch in each one of the windows. There were now six viewing stations from which a commensurate number of anatomically curious young men could hopefully view the naked bodies of the girl’s swimming team. By the time I got home I was ten feet tall. I had just successfully completed a monumental achievement, and would be known from here on as a boy with guts and vision; a boy with the entrepreneurial foresight to use an opportunity to its greatest advantage. If there were a category of Nobel Prize for felonious mischief, King Gustav himself would be handing me the trophy, and shaking my hand. Maybe I should write him a letter explaining my triumph. My next step would be to select five friends who could keep a secret.
The next day I gathered together a carefully selected group and explained the situation. Jimmy, Chipps Page, Billy Beggs, and the Bullock twins, (Stephen and Stuart) seemed the likeliest candidates so, after discussing strategy, we agreed to meet in the drainage pit at 7pm. There was to be no verbal communication in the pit. Absolute quiet was necessary for success. All discussion was to done by hand signals. At the appointed hour, like little ninjas on a mission, the six of us silently dropped down into the drainage pit, and slowly approached the tiny holes in the paint. And there they were. To our almost uncontrollable joy, the entire girls swimming team was walking around in varying degrees of undress. Diane Montgomery, Betty Welsh, Joan Roberts, Peggy Wainwright, all naked and, since the six of us were hidden in our subterranean vantage point, we could look at them as long as we wanted. And I did this. This remarkable achievement was all mine. I would be a king among boys. I could feel the tension in the great hall in Stockholm, as King Gustav opened the envelope. “And for achievement in felonious mischief, this year’s award goes to……”, the room is hushed. “…..Shaun Costello, the young man from Forest Hills, whose keen interest in anatomy, and willingness to share his discoveries with his peers has changed the outlook of the young men of his community”. I couldn’t wipe the smile off my face. Before going home, the six of us swore an oath of absolute secrecy. If word were to get out, it would be the end of the greatest opportunity any of us had experienced. No one could know what we did tonight. We agreed to meet the next night at the same time, and went home.
A little before seven, the next evening, I noticed Jimmy and Billy Beggs sitting on the Community House Lawn, under a tree. They seemed sad and disoriented, and wouldn’t respond when I asked them what was wrong, so I slipped through the bushes and approached our sacred viewing site. About fifty feet from the pit I noticed a huge cloud of blue/gray smoke, and as I came closer I could hear the giggling and guffawing of a crowd of boys, and to my absolute horror, there in our blessed pit, where the tender nakedness of our female neighbors had been so generously revealed only 24 hours before, were about twenty of the teenage jerks who hung out at the Sutton Hall Pharmacy; Howie Clary, Brian McKenna, Bill Conroy, and some kids I had never seen before. The same morons who beat each other up for amusement, not to mention laying the whup on kids they referred to as kike mother fuckers because they couldn’t think of anything else to do with themselves. And here they were, defiling this hallowed ground, where I had experienced my greatest achievement as a human being; moaning and laughing and smoking Lucky’s and making way too much noise to go undetected for very long. I was shattered. In my short time on earth I had never experienced such disappointment. What about King Gustav? What about my Nobel Prize? What about our oath of secrecy? Somebody had obviously squealed. Chipps Page was always sucking up to the older guys, but I couldn’t accuse him because I had no proof. So I got out of there before the situation turned to disaster and, as I turned the corner onto Greenway North, I could see the flashing red lights from the approaching police cars. Six or seven of the teenage morons were apprehended and returned by the police to the welcoming arms of their angry parents for familial disposition, which I suppose was some small compensation for my loss. But for that one fateful night I was a King among my peers. I had achieved something never thought possible. For the first time in my childhood I had experienced success beyond my wildest dream, followed by crushing disappointment.
© 2007 Shaun Costello
WAKING THE DEAD
By Shaun Costello
This story is excerpted from my childhood memoir
THE LAST TIME I SAW JESUS
Surviving God and Elvis in the time of ‘Duck and Cover’
Promotion to the Fifth Grade at Our Lady Queen of Martyrs School produced no noticeable changes in my day-to-day life, other than having a new teacher, and being a year older. The school, the kids, and the neighborhood seemed to go on as before. I was sitting in a booth at the Sutton Hall Pharmacy, sipping cokes after school with Beth Neilsen, Soomi Esses, Kevin James, and that know-it-all weasel Richard O’Leary. I had no money so Beth generously offered to share her lemon coke with me. Beth was the smartest and prettiest girl in school and, for a reason totally beyond my comprehension, treated me like I was human. At this point in my little life puberty was still only a rumor. Boys and girls rarely socialized, and paid little attention to each other, but Beth was different. She always said hello when our paths crossed, and made small talk that I never attempted to avoid.
Anyway, probably as punishment for sins of past lifetimes, the four of us sat there listening to O’Leary’s insufferable diatribe on traitors in America. It seemed that President Eisenhower was a card carrying member of the communist party. So was J. Edgar Hoover. O’Leary knew this to be a fact because his father told him, and his father was always right. Not only that, but Douglas Mac Arthur, the hero of the Philippines in WWII, was now living in Moscow teaching the Russians how to destroy America in WWIII, which would begin in the Fall of 1956. “Real Americans”, claimed O’Leary, “knew about this stuff”.
Just before I was ready to kill myself, I looked out the window and saw two kids being chased down the Street by an old man who was swinging his cane at them. They stopped, turned, and shot him with their Weegee water pistols, and the chase resumed. Finally the old man gave up and headed for the front door of the drug store. This was Mr. Nocky, the neighborhood lunatic. No one knew where he came from or where he lived. He was just there, and was often the victim of the cruelty of children. As he passed our booth I spoke up, “Hello Mr. Nocky”. He stopped, scanning the occupants of our booth. “Sasay, sasay, it’s not nice to fool Mr. Nocky’ he replied, as I knew he would. “Just saying hello Mr. Nocky”. “Well, that’s different then. Sasay, sasay, Mr. Nocky went to the Staunton Military Academy, in the beautiful Shenandoah Valley of Virginia. Not everyone went to Staunton, but Mr. Nocky did. And Mr. Nocky always used a Trojan. There are many brands of rubbers, but science has proven Trojan to be the most effective”. He wandered over to the counter mumbling, “Sasay, sasay” to himself, and by the time he took a stool his daily cup of tea was waiting for him.
Mr. Nocky’s interruption blessedly put the kibosh on O’Leary’s oration and, taking advantage of this event, the group happily disbanded. I lingered outside for a few minutes talking with Kevin James, who invited me to come over to his house the following Saturday, and then made my way home. The next day Kevin James was not in school. There was immediate speculation as to the cause of his absence. Mumps, measles, strep throat, flu, anything was possible. Grim and depressing as always, Vincent Averna was sure it was polio. Suddenly, Mother Superior appeared at the door to our classroom and the kids jumped to their feet chirping in unison, “Good morning Mother Superior”. She addressed the class. “Children, you’ve probably noticed that Mr. James is absent this morning. It is my sad duty to inform you that last night his father was called to God’s bosom”. The whispers began:
“What does that mean?”
“Kevin’s dad, stupid”
“Kevin’s dad’s dead?”
“What did he die of?”
“How do I know?”
“What’s this bosom thing?”
‘That’s how nuns say people are dead”
“But what’s a bosom?”
Mother Superior continued, “On Thursday Sister Innocent will lead this entire class over to the funeral home, where Mr. James will lie in repose. You will say a rosary for the salvation of his immortal soul”. And she left.
So on Thursday afternoon, Sister Innocent marched her flock, all washed and dressed for the occasion, the nine or ten blocks to the Fox Funeral Home. The place was owned by the Baxter family whose sons, Noel and Wayne, I had gotten to know playing basketball at the Community house. We were led into a large room with chairs arranged in rows facing the front where a large wooden casket sat on some kind of platform. The lid was open and, in the distance, you could see the pink, waxy looking face of Kevin’s dead father. Sister Innocent led the class in a rosary, after which we were to stand, in threes, at the side of the coffin, to view the body and pray that the soul of Mr. James would enjoy an eternity of happiness at the right side of God Almighty. Heaven was a very exclusive club. You had to be Catholic, and you had to be good, otherwise you spent eternity in an unpleasant alternative, roasting in the fires of hell. Protestants, Jews, Hindus, Moslems, Buddhists, regardless of their goodness, had no shot at salvation whatsoever, and were destined for the big barbecue. Heaven was a “Catholics only” venue. You had to be Protestant to be President, but you had to Catholic to rate heaven. Papal vengeance, I suppose.
When it was my turn to stand next to the coffin, I was totally spooked. I had never seen a dead guy before, and was both terrified and fascinated. His skin was waxy and translucent and, although I had no experience at viewing the deceased, I can honestly say that he looked very life-like. I wondered what would happen if he suddenly sat up and started talking. Sixty kids would probably pee in their pants. When our respects had been properly paid, Sister marched us all back to school, and we went home from there.
I stopped off at my friend Jimmy’s house to tell him about seeing the dead guy. It turned out that he had never seen one, but knew Wayne Baxter really well, and Wayne had once promised him that he would sneak him into the funeral home after hours and show him dead people. When confronted with his death-tour promise Baxter wanted a buck each for corpse viewing, which I thought was highway robbery, but Jimmy said he would lend me the dollar so we agreed. We rounded up Tommy Welstead and the Bullock twins, who agreed to the price, and the five of us were led by Wayne into the basement door of the funeral home.
The place was closed from five to seven so that the employees could eat dinner, so we were alone with the deceased. After walking us through all the viewing rooms, where waxy bodies were displayed in open coffins, Wayne took us downstairs where he said they did the dirty work. There was a large tiled room where three naked bodies were lying on metal tables. All were elderly, two men and one woman. Their eyes were closed, and their mouths were open, and they had rubber tubes sticking into holes in their skin. There was an overwhelming smell of chemicals, but the bodies themselves had no odor. Wayne told us that they were in the process of being embalmed, and that there wasn’t anything left inside them that could smell. Tommy Welstead started poking one of them with his finger, and Wayne shouted, “Hey, no touching”. Suddenly Stephen Bullock ran for the bathroom to puke his guts out. Wayne, still in tour guide mode, showed us the prep room, where bodies were put when they arrived, but before they were embalmed. The room was refrigerated and locked with a huge latch on the outside of the door, and smelled so badly that it didn’t seem like you could be in there more than thirty seconds without losing your lunch. Wayne told us that the bodies smelled awful before they were embalmed.
Our tour was now over and, out on the street, we parted company with Wayne. The five of us walked in silence for a few minutes before we realized that there were only four. Tommy was missing. Stephen suggested that he probably ran home to puke, and didn’t want any of us to know. It sounded reasonable and, along with Jimmy, I stopped by the Welstead house to tease him about throwing up, but his mother said she hadn’t seen him in a few hours. I suddenly had a terrible feeling that somehow we had left Tommy inside the funeral home. Mrs. Welstead let us use her phone, so Jimmy looked up Baxter in the directory, and got Wayne on the phone. He told him what had happened and Wayne agreed to meet us at the basement door to the funeral home right away. The three of us looked all over the place and there was no sign of Tommy. We wandered around the basement for a while and suddenly Wayne turned white as a sheet and said, “Oh Jesus, did we lock him in the prep room?” We approached the prep room door, the one with the huge latch that could only be opened from the outside. Wayne opened the enormous door, and there was Tommy Welstead, his skin all blue from the cold, and the whole front of his shirt covered with vomit, breathing heavily with his mouth wide open, and his eyes as big as quarters. He ran past us and out the basement door, leaving pukey footprints as he went. We looked inside the prep room, and most of the floor was covered with the last few meals that Tommy had eaten. What a mess. Wayne said we’d better clean this up before his father found it, and Jimmy turned to him and said, “You made five bucks. You clean it up”. So the two of us left our tour guide to clean up the mess. We didn’t talk much on the way home. Dead people. Very creepy.
© 2007 Shaun Costello
LOOKING FOR THE SHIT
How I parlayed my annoying but tolerable sex addiction into an unexpected career move through the smut biz, providing however, that I could ever find anyone crazy enough to give me a part in one of those movies I had been watching from the safety of my seat in the balcony.
by Shaun Costello
First things first. In 1968, Otis Redding was sittin’ on the dock of the bay, Marvin Gaye heard it through the grapevine, and The Rolling Stones had sympathy for the devil. America lost first, Martin Luther King, then Bobby Kennedy. Richard Millhouse Nixon won the Whitehouse, and the Tet offensive shocked the Pentagon and turned Vietnam into the quagmire that it was to remain. America’s favorite doctor, Benjamin Spock, was indicted on charges of conspiracy to encourage violation of the draft laws. At the Mexico City Olympic Games, two track athletes had to return their medals for giving the Black Power salute, and Yale went coed.
In 1968 I was 24 years old, living in Manhattan, unemployed, without direction, pretty much adrift. I had gotten a job editing a small, controlled circulation magazine called “Careers for the College Man” when I got out of school, but after two years I became bored with it and quit. With no office destination in my daily schedule, I found myself spending an ever increasing amount of time sitting in the balconies of sleazy movie theaters looking at the bodies of naked women. This was before hard core porno was legally shown in theaters, and the available smut was anything from volley ball games in nudist camps, to exploitation sagas which included some minor nudity, to travelogues showing the breasts of Massai maidens in Kenya. As far as I was concerned any breast was better than no breast, whether it was a bouncing volley baller in a nudist camp, or a maiden in Nairobi. Then came the soft core sex movie, which presented a vast improvement over bouncing boobs. Partial nudity, simulated sex, and occasionally girls actually kissing each other. I was in heaven. I was in the balcony.
I suppose I could blame my sex addiction on my Irish Catholic upbringing, or on every girl who denied me bare tit during adolescence, which was every girl I knew, but the fact is that, for as far back as I can remember, I just wanted to have sex with everyone I met, and was disappointed when reciprocity did not present itself. I’m not even sure what a sexual addiction is exactly, except to say that, for most of my life, my libido got in my way. For most kids puberty is the beginning of an exciting life long adventure, for me it was the end of reason. Sexual fantasy became my religion, masturbation became my delight, and the balcony of the sexploitation house became my home. I was a willing slave to my own carnality, and that was just fine with me.
Having always suspected myself of possessing larger than life sexual proclivities, not that I understood the alternative, or even wanted to, I had no problem accepting my questionable daily routine, prowling the caverns of Manhattan’s West Forties looking for the shit. My problem was paying for it. With no income to support my ever-expanding sexual adventures, it was only a matter of time before I ran out of box office resources. I needed a job that would pay enough to support my smut habit, while leaving me enough free time to indulge in it.
Thank God for old friends. Joe was the only holdover from my high school days in Forest Hills, and I became reacquainted with him purely by accident, while dropping off the photo-mechanicals for an ad in “Careers” at Grey Advertising, where our production work was done. Joe had taken a job at Grey as a junior Account Exec, and it didn’t take me long to remember how much I liked him. Knowing that I hadn’t saved a nickel from my magazine salary, he had strongly advised me not to quit until I found an alternative income, advice which I completely ignored. So, when I quit the magazine Joe had an idea. He had a friend who was an up and coming fashion photographer. The guy had potential, but was shooting more tests than jobs and needed a good sales rep. A photographer’s rep is someone who pounds the pavement, from one advertising agency to the next, carrying the photographer’s portfolio, hoping to show it to agency art directors, whose responsibility it was to select the appropriate photographer to shoot an ad that the agency had created for a particular client. Sounds simple, but the competition was fierce. For every ad created there were a thousand photographers hoping to shoot it, and a thousand reps hoping to make the deal. I didn’t really know that much about photography, but during my time at the magazine I had accumulated a sizable number of contacts at most at the bigger agencies. It seemed reasonable to me that I could parlay those contacts into a successful career as one of the thousand reps hoping to make the deal.
His name was Peter and his studio was a few blocks from Gramercy Park. A large second floor loft with a decent size reception area filled by several girls with portfolios on their laps, hoping to have Peter shoot test shots of them, a brick walled shooting studio, and an apartment in the back where Peter lived. His portfolio seemed surprisingly good. Black and white photographs, mostly tests, but nice, crisp, appealing stuff. I liked the feel of the place. It was a glamorous space in an entry level kind of way, Credence Clearwater or NRBQ was playing really loud, and there were always models around, hopeful and willing. I could do this. The problem was there would be no salary. I would make a twenty five percent commission on any jobs I brought in, but that might take a while. Peter and I shook hands on a pretty loose arrangement, and I was now a photographer’s rep.
The studio turned out to be a great daily destination. I would arrive each day between nine and ten, drink coffee, make sales calls to art directors at advertising agencies, and canoodle with modeling hopefuls. After lunch I would trek uptown, portfolio under my arm, hoping to make the deal. Advertising was in it’s golden age, and the agencies still had those romantic and almost musical names, now abandoned, and long since replaced by initials: Batton Barton Durstein and Osborn, Sullivan Stauffer Colwell and Bayles, Doyle Dane Bernbach, Benton and Boles, Foote Cone and Belding, J Walter Thomson, McCann Ericson. And I took Peter’s portfolio to each and every one of them, glad-handing as many art directors as I could manage, undaunted by rejection, hoping to make the deal.
By the late sixties the Ted Bates Agency had moved into the new Astor Plaza Tower, at Broadway and Forty Fifth Street, the beginning of the alleged gentrification of Times Square. The Ted Bates Agency became a favorite target for my sales efforts, not because of its size, which was large, or its client list, which was substantial, but because of its location. It was only a block away from my balconies of choice, the sleazy movie houses of Eighth Avenue. An enthusiastic and impassioned sales pitch to a Bates art director on why Peter should photograph their new Schweppes advertising campaign, followed by two hours in the balcony watching exploitation films that probably included the nude initiation ritual of a coven of witches in Denmark.
There was a popular fantasy at the time, that my girlfriend of the moment explained to her shrink three times a week, and me whenever I would let her, which involved living in the cast of “Hair”. Spending the rest of your life dancing the dances, singing the songs, giving, and loving, and caring, and naked, and free. Let the sun shine in. There are worse ideas, I guess, but that just didn’t work for me. For me, being in the cast of “Sexual Customs in Latvia” was more like it. Being naked with flaxen haired maidens, dancing around Maypoles, and participating in strange sexual initiation rituals, while some guy with a camera keeps saying, “That’s right, keep smiling, keep dancing, that’s it. Now….everybody kiss….that’s it…more kissing”. After all, there were people in these strange movies. Why couldn’t I be one of them?
Before Al Goldstein started publishing Screw, there was an alternative weekly called The East Village Other which, because of its highly sexual content, was a must-read for any self loathing sex addict. The classifieds in the “Other” were particularly amusing, and a good place to find cheap entertainment. Swingers Clubs, Encounter Groups, Rap Sessions, Naked Bhudism – hey, it was 1968 and people DID these things. As I perused the assortment of opportunities something stopped me dead in my tracks. Right there, in between INGRID’S ENCOUNTERS, and RAP LIKE YOU MEAN IT, was the ad I had been looking for all my life. The answer to every question. The remedy to every ailment. Better than finding the Holy Grail. Right there in capital letters, printed for all to see:
MALE AND FEMALE MODELS WANTED, NUDITY REQUIRED.
I gasped. I tingled. There was a phone number to call at the bottom of the ad. My prayers had been answered. Flaxen haired nakedness, and Maypoles, and kissing, and dancing, and more kissing, and more nakedness………Latvia, here I come.
It was early February on 42nd Street, cold and bleak like it’s supposed to be. At the huge news stand on the corner of Broadway all the newspapers carried the same photograph on their front page. It was Eddie Adams’ Pulitzer Prize winning pic of the South Vietnamese general holding a pistol to some poor guy’s head and blowing his brains out. A major offensive had just begun by the North Vietnamese army on a holiday called Tet, and there was pretty universal grumbling about where this whole mess was going. As I stood there in a crowd of equally disturbed gawkers, looking for brain particles coming out of the guy’s head, the speaker over the record store on the corner was blaring out the Beatles’ Happiness Is a Warm Gun. I hesitated, savoring the irony of a not easily forgettable moment, and then began to work my way east toward Sixth Avenue. Happiness Is a Warm Gun. Not for the guy on every front page in the city getting his brains splattered all over downtown Saigon, it wasn’t.
The north side of 42nd Street was mostly two and three story buildings, cheap retail or fast food on the street level with a stairway to the floors above, inhabited by temporary tenants, occupying the space until the long promised demolition began. I took the index card out of my pocket. I knew the address by heart, but somehow having it on a card was like having the written invitation to a party. The studio was on the second floor over a cheap electronics store that occupied the street level. The kind of electronics store that’s been going out of business since the day it opened, with large banners covering most of the windows that read: LAST DAYS…….EVERYTHING MUST GO……..LOST OUR LEASE……….MAKE AN OFFER. I guess somebody must have believed the signs, because there were customers going in and out. There was a doorway to the right of the store, and inside a stairway to the second floor. I started getting nervous as I climbed the stairs. Would there be flaxen haired peasant-girls awaiting my nude caress? Would there be nakedness and kissing? Would they like me? Or would they simply say that there’s been a big mistake. What nude models? What the hell are you talking about? Nude Models? You better get the fuck outta here. Get out. Get out before I call the cops, do you hear me. Get the fuck outta here.
I sheepishly opened the door because no one responded to my knock. It was a big, empty, dirty space, with dark paper covering the picture windows to the street. A heavy-set man came through a door with the sound of a just-flushed toilet behind him. “You the guy?” he asks me. I tell him I called from the ad in the paper, and that somebody gave me the address and told me to come on over, and that I was sorry if I was late. “Don’t worry about it. The girls are in the back. My name’s Aaron”. The place was owned by a guy named Teddy Snyder, who had a camera store in Queens, and was making extra money selling nude photographs to cheap sexploit magazines. His Igor-like, toilet flushing assistant Aaron led me to the back where Teddy was busy, taking pictures of two seriously ugly biker babes. He was an affable but business-like guy who was there to take nude photographs of myself and the two ugly girls that would be published in masturbatory magazines, and he would pay us $25 dollars each for the session.
So we start. I’m relieved to find that there’s no kissing. Not even any touching. Teddy took photographs of semi-naked people almost, but not quite touching. The girls were both stoned on the same thing, whatever that was, and were ugly. They had gnawed fingernails and horrible feet, and never stopped giggling. None of this mattered to Ted, who probably got paid the same amount for the pictures whether the feet were ugly or not. So I posed with the girls, almost, but not quite kissing their breasts, and they giggled and continued acting stupid. I don’t think they actually ever acknowledged my presence in the room. Where was my flaxen haired maiden, with her kissing and nakedness? I don’t think Teddy Snyder knew any flaxen haired maidens, but what the hell, I had twenty-five bucks more than I came in with, and Ted’s assurance of more of the same.
I walked back over to the corner of Broadway and had a hot dog at Nedicks, covered with their special relish, and a large orange drink, and thought things over. I was disappointed, but it could have been worse. I got paid something for my efforts, and had gotten a foot in the door. Even though the biker babes had been hideous, the situation itself had possibilities. The flaxen haired maidens were out there somewhere, and if I just persevered, those possibilities would be realized. So I walked over to Eighth Avenue to engage in some serious balcony time.
I’d been Peter’s rep for almost four months now and hadn’t made a nickel, so it was time to muster whatever resources I could to keep the wolves at bay. McCalls Patterns was a division of McCalls Magazine, and published a how-to book for housewives who still made their own clothes, filled with photographs of models showing off the possible final product of their domestic efforts. The man who ran it was an old friend of my family, someone I’d known since early childhood. So, I made the call. “Hi Uncle Sidney. Say, I was wondering…….who takes the pictures for your pattern book?” The next day I was in his office, in the old New York Central Building, showing Peter’s portfolio to his art director. Thank God for family friends. The art director, who was impressed by Peter’s book, agreed to meet us at the studio for lunch the next day to discuss a possible job. Hallelujah. Well, I’ve done my day’s work, I wondered what was playing at the Tivoli.
Of all the sleaze houses in New York City, the Tivoli Theater was my favorite. Built early in the century as a legitimate theater, it went through the usual transition to Burlesque, then to Vaudeville, then to movie house, and continued the downward spiral until arriving at today’s feature presentation, “THE PLEASURE MACHINES”. Hey, I’m in the mood for some of this. An actual feature film about a crazed scientist who creates life-like female robots whose sole purpose on this planet is giving pleasure to men. And they do it naked! I’d better get myself some popcorn, I’m going to be here for a while. The Tivoli actually had a candy counter, with hot buttered pop corn, Goldberg’s Peanut Chews, Snow Caps, Raisinets, Milk Duds, Honey Roasted Peanuts, pretty much the entire movie theater menu. So, popcorn in hand, I climbed the stairs, took a seat, and got ready for an afternoon of serious depravity. Forget about flaxen haired Maidens. Give me a room filled with horny female robots any day. I began to wonder what they’d be like, inside. Being experienced at public masturbation, I came equipped for the task at hand. You needed tissues or napkins, because this could be a messy business. And you needed something to put the used tissues or napkins in, because it just wasn’t kosher to leave your semen filled paper goods for the ushers to clean up. After all, they have enough to do as it is. Ah, life in the balcony.
My girlfriend of the moment decided to spike the eroticism in our relationship by dragging me over to Cinema One, on Third Avenue, to see a new sensation in modern yet classic erotica. Elvira Madigan was a slow and fuzzy journey with two suicidal Swedish adolescents though forests and foggy bogs, touching and caressing and being profound, all the while worrying about the consequences of touching and caressing and being profound. As the Mozart 21 played on and on, the audience sensed that the moment they had anticipated was near. Yes, here it was, right there up on the big screen, to see, and to cherish. The waking Swedish adolescent girl glanced up and saw the sleeping Swedish adolescent boy’s flaccid penis, and smiled, as the audience exhaled a universal sigh of approval and acceptance. And I’m thinking, a robot girl wouldn’t do that. No self-respecting robot girl would behave like that. If a waking robot girl glanced up and had one look at that sleeping Swedish adolescent’s equipment she would chow-down on that boy’s weenie right then and there. That’s just the way robot’s are. As the moviegoers exited the theater in silence and a shared understanding of a better world, my girlfriend of the moment gazed at me knowing that we had traveled together through an emotional portal to a new level of mutually experienced and sanguine tranquility. Ouch.
I was splitting time now between my girlfriend of the moment’s apartment in the East Seventies, and an apartment I shared with a friend down in Chelsea, which was not far from Peter’s studio, and definitely the domicile of choice. After work, I picked up a copy of the “Other” on my way to the Chelsea apartment, as well as two slices of pizza. There was a note on the fridge telling me that my room mate wouldn’t be home until later on, and would I please feed the cats, after which I sat down to troll the “Other’s” classifieds, looking for amusement. And there it was again, the same ad:
MALE AND FEMALE MODELS WANTED, NUDITY REQUIRED.
Teddy had told me that he would use me again, but I guess I must not have made much of an impression. Instead of simply picking up the phone and calling me, he was spending money advertising for someone else. Oh well. Maybe I should have pretended to like the biker babes. Maybe he thought I was ungrateful. I had mentioned to Teddy and Aaron my disappointment at the quality of the female participation. I should have kept my mouth shut. But wait a minute. There’s a different phone number. Maybe this ad was submitted by someone else. Teddy Snyder can’t be the only guy in the world looking for nude models. Maybe this guy knows some flaxen haired maidens. I paced the floor for a few hours, too nervous to make the call. Maybe Ted’s just gotten a different number. What would I say if he answered the phone? So I finally made the call, and got a busy signal. I guess I’m not the only pervert trying to get paid to get naked with women. When I finally got through, a guy named Bob Wolfe answered. After a brief and surprisingly friendly conversation, he told me to show up at 11AM on Thursday, at a ground floor studio on West Fourteenth Street, between Ninth and Tenth Avenues. This time it’s not stills. He’s shooting a soft core, ten minute short or loop, with one guy and one girl in the cast. Now, this is what I’ve had in mind from day one.
I arrived a little early, trying to score points with my potential employer. It was the kind of ground floor space where you entered though a gate under the stone stairway to the first floor of the building, pretty typical in Manhattan walk-ups. Bob was a small, bearded man, maybe in his mid thirties, friendly and talkative. The space was small, with film lights on stands surrounding a mattress on the floor, and a 16MM Bolex camera on a tripod, waiting for action – Bare-bones porno at its best. He tells me that he’s never met the girl, and that this will be her first time. Of course I’m hoping for a flaxen haired maiden, but I’ll settle for what walks through the door. I’ve learned my lesson. No more complaining about the talent.
The bell rang, and Bob disappeared down the hallway to the front door. A few moments later he returned with a truly adorable girl. I couldn’t stop grinning, and probably acted like a complete jerk, but I was beside myself with joy. She had long, curly, sandy colored hair, and a beautiful smile, and a small tight body to die for, and she was grinning at me just as much as I was grinning at her, and this was the moment I’d been waiting for, since masturbation hit me like an explosion when I was eleven. I’d reached the promised-land. Honey, I’m home.
Bob had a very different approach than Teddy Snyder. Paramount with Teddy was there be no touching, where with Bob, touching was what it was all about. Bob’s definition of “soft core” was not showing penetration. Genitalia was to be avoided, but if a penis did sneak its way into a shot, it had better be soft. The camera had 400 feet of 16MM film to expose, which translated into ten minutes. The editing had to be done in the camera, and Bob seemed to have a grasp of the content he wanted and the method to get it. I stood there with my co-star like camera fodder, awaiting our first big shot, while Bob fidgeted around the room turning on lights, checking his light meter, adjusting the camera; all the while expounding on his varied philosophies regarding eroticism and the moving image. And all I could think of was getting this girl’s clothes off. Meanwhile my curly haired cutie had begun her mischief. Her fingers had found mine. She was playfully gliding her hand up and down the inside of my thigh, grinning up at me, like we shared a secret, unknown to the rest of the universe. Well, we did share a secret, at least from Bob. My cock was as hard as a rock.
Bob was big on undressing for the camera. Unbuttoning, unzipping, slowly revealing body parts; reveal and caress, reveal and caress. When you see some skin where fabric had been only a moment ago, kiss it. I guess Bob figured that he could use up four of his ten minutes just undressing, as long as it was done with a certain slow, and erotic panache. I had completed the undressing of my co-star with painstaking tenderness, revealing the whole of her magnificent body, one part at a time, adoring every square millimeter as her loveliness was revealed to the camera, and meaning every bit of it, as she continued to grin at me, and unbeknownst to Bob, to secretly tickle my ever harder penis. OK, my turn. She removed my shirt with a reciprocity of caresses and licking, and the big moment finally arrived. Kneeling before me she undid my belt with her teeth, which I thought was a nice touch, then the hook, then the long slow unzip. She grasped my pants with a hand on either side of the open zipper and slowly pulled them down. Bob had grown silent as his performers had pretty much taken over the action, and the only sound in the room was the constant whirring of the camera. Her hands continued pulling down my pants until that inevitable moment when my very hard, and long imprisoned member, yearning to breath free, was released from the constriction of my trousers, and snapped up like a whiffle ball bat smacking her across the face. The camera stopped, and I heard Bob’s voice, “Oh shit”.
“Look fella, I can’t work this way”, like I’d broken some important rule, which I guess I had. Like a ritual that was familiar to him, Bob slowly turned off each of the four film lights surrounding the mattress. There was no instruction, no explanation, but it seemed understood that in turning off the lights, Bob was calling time out. My erection was obviously here to stay, and the only way around this problem was a sex break. His co-stars would fuck. There would be consummation and completion. The erection would be history, and he could turn the lights back on. So we do.
This little girl was a sexual powerhouse, and the action was noisy and athletic, and wet, and intense, with frequent changes of position, and her mouth was attached to my ear repeating over and over, “come inside me……come inside me…..give it to me”, until staring into her ever grinning face I did exactly that. As the breathing diminished, and the click of the first light being turned back on broke the silence, I realized that I had discovered something about myself that I never knew. In the midst of my bout of sexual frenzy with this wonderful young girl I had felt Bob’s eyes watching me. Quietly, silently, Bob sat there in the dark, watching his performers perform, but only for him. I’m not sure how it made him feel, but it made me feel powerful. Controlling, manipulating, teasing someone’s libido by performing a sex act in front of them. I would have to spend some time thinking about this. I liked the way it felt.
Round Two. My grinning co-star was back at it, playfully caressing my still hard penis while Bob checked his light meter. Action. The second reveal, with the same result, only this time she ducked as my erection escaped my pants, and the camera stopped again. “You’ve got to be shitting me”. Bob’s pissed. He’s been patient with me, even gave me a sex break, and this is the thanks he gets. He’s genuinely angry with me, but there’s no way around it. A second sex break is the only way. Knowing that I’m causing Bob a fair amount of grief, I feign a humble and contrite demeanor, but the truth is that I was having the time of my life. We fuck again. Bob watches. I like the way it makes me feel.
Round Three. Same result. I’m still hard. Bob’s beside himself. Being the pragmatist that he is, Bob sees that the only solution to dealing with my still hard penis is hiding it inside the girl. Now why didn’t I think of that? So we finish the little film with me pretending to fuck my co-star, while in fact doing exactly that. At some point I wondered how this was going to look from my seat in the balcony.
We say our goodbyes, exchange phone numbers, and my still grinning co-star, a bit disheveled from a day at the sexual olympics, exits Bob’s little studio to resume her life in the real world, wherever that is. Bob’s attitude has now taken a new turn. I’ve given him some grief, but I’ve shown him something he’s never seen before, a guy whose erection never goes away. It’s nothing new to me, but Bob’s never seen anything like it. We sat in his studio talking about things. He wanted to know if it was always like this. I told him, ever since puberty. I told him how I used to jerk off before going to the Friday night dances at the Community House in Forest Hills, where I grew up, so that my cock wouldn’t get hard slow dancing with girls. It never worked, but I did it anyway. I was thirteen, and I jerked off a lot. Bob’s looking at me as both, freak of nature and super hero, and I’m still thinking about my ever-grinning co-star. So, Bob laid his cards on the table. How would I like to come over to his apartment later on and fuck his wife while he watches? This was an unexpected development, and I said, “Sure”. A surprising fringe benefit to a day that had already exceeded any expectations I might have had. Sex had occupied my every thought since I was twelve, and endlessly masturbated in my room, while thinking about the skin behind Betsy Ryan’s knees. And now I was fucking a pornographer’s wife, after a day at the sexual olympics. It was an evening’s gratuity for an outstanding afternoon’s performance, and I was a kid in a candy store.
I could tell you more, but I think I’ve said enough. Besides, I’d run the risk of repetition, and by now you’ve surely Googled me, and have a good idea where all this is headed. As I began the process of remembering, I found this story’s narrator to have maintained a strangely appealing innocence, considering his chosen journey. He took a magic carpet ride, like a modern day Candide, through a murky world of pleasure, and danger, and risk, savoring every moment. And the farther his journey took him, the more distant the innocence became. And, there really was an innocence to the events of that afternoon in Bob Wolfe’s basement studio. It was never really quite like that, ever again.
© 2011 Shaun Costello
This story is gleaned from the pages of Chapter One, of Shaun Costello’s manuscript:
Sex, Gangsters, and Deception in the Time of ‘Groovy’
And can be reprinted with permission.
Well, of course.
Mel Brooks rates a second. Pound for pound, more tasteless laughs per minute than any film ever made.
THE LOVED ONE
Tony Richardson – 1965
The tag line was, “Something to offend everyone”. Scathingly tasteless, and recklessly hilarious screenplay by Terry Southern and Christopher Isherwood. And yes, Liberace is priceless – So is Rod Steiger as Mr. Joyboy, who’s saving up for Mom’s big tub.
MY FAVORITE YEAR
Dick Benjamin – 1982
A Personal favorite. You had to be there, and you had to know that Errol Flynn really did appear on the Sid Caesar show a year before his death, which is what the story is loosely based on. And you had to have a special appreciation for Sid Caesar, who played the saxophone at my parent’s wedding.
THE WRONG BOX
Bryan Forbes – 1966
Hey, it made me laugh a lot. I’ll bet most of you have never even heard of this. Find it – it’s out there. You’ll thank me. Or, maybe not.
THE LADY KILLERS
Alexander MacKendrick – 1955
So many brilliant, zany comedies from Britain’s Ealing Studios in the Forties and Fifties, and this is the best of the lot.
OH BROTHER WHERE ART THOU
The Coen boys – 2000
The Odyssey, a comedy? Yeah! Did the Sirens really turn John Turturro into a toad? Does it matter? It’s a smoldering gag that builds over maybe eight minutes, until you wet your pants. Funny, funny stuff.
Preston Sturges – 1941
You can’t do a list like this without including Sturges’ take on things funny, and this is his funniest.
IT’S A MAD, MAD, MAD, MAD, WORLD
Stanley Kramer – 1963
I know, it’s corny, and looking a bit dated and long in the tooth these days, and I don’t think much of Stanley Kramer, but look who’s in it – everybody! More comedic talent crammed into one mad chase farce than, well – anything else.
Jim Abrahams, and those Zucker boys – 1980
Last but not least. Well, something had to be tenth, and why not Airplane. I thought about Caddyshack, but no, it’s Airplane. Look who’s flying the thing. And it’s even got Harriet Nelson. You can simply listen from another room, and it’s still funny. You can’t not laugh at this. It’s irresistible.
SHOWING IT TO CHARLOTTE
A Christmas Odyssey
By Shaun Costello
My friend John has a comfort-level problem with the Holiday Season. A lifetime of frosty Christmas mornings in Boston seems a distant memory now since John, fulfilling his long-standing commitment to never touch another snow shovel, moved his family to Florida, just a few years ago. The sappy scent of a real tree, usually a Blue Spruce or a White Pine, standing in the corner of his New England living room, covered with holiday ornamentation, some of which were family heirlooms inherited from his grandparents, has been replaced by a plastic palm from Walmart with built-in flashing lights. His kids didn’t seem to mind, but for John, it just wasn’t the same. It didn’t feel much like Christmas. But this isn’t the only reason John is uneasy this season. Each Yuletide he relives his ultimate horror. It was the day before Christmas, several years ago, when John traveled three thousand miles in an attempt to show his penis to an unsuspecting Charlotte Rampling.
For some time now John has harbored a dark secret, something not even his closest friends suspect. He suffers from a ZARDOZ fixation. Growing up a sexually repressed Catholic in a working class Irish neighborhood in Boston, John spent more than his share of time in the balconies of porno theaters, and found this degenerate atmosphere to be a comforting refuge from the daily drudgery of his blue-collar life. But all good things eventually come to an end and, with the advent of the video cassette, the days of the “Adult Theater” were numbered. So one day John, who had set aside several hours for some serious balcony time watching some of his fave smut flicks, was astonished to find that the theater had changed it’s policy. No more porn. Instead, the theater was showing Vintage Sci-fi Movies, starting off with a twin bill of, “This Island Earth” with Rex Reason and Faith Domergue, and “Zardoz” with Sean Connery and Charlotte Rampling. “Well”, thought a shattered John, his fiver still in his hand, “Better than nothing”. So he paid the five bucks, bought his popcorn, and settled in for an afternoon of ray guns and slippery logic.
As the plot of Zardoz began to reveal itself John liked what he saw. An Amazonian civilization where men were unknown and women ruled with an iron fist in a velvet glove. He began fantasizing about this little community as a vacation destination, where he might mingle with clusters of innocent, scantily clad, sexually curious maidens, who had never seen a man and were impossible to disappoint. Then came the scene where a naked Sean Connery stood before the Amazonian Senate. Curious about his anatomy, they showed him Charlotte Rampling’s naked breasts, just to see if they would have an effect on him. Not knowing how to react to Sean Connery’s now very erect penis, the nervous Senate chamber was filled with giggles and then laughter. But not from Charlotte Rampling, who knew a good thing when she saw one. She stared at Connery’s hard penis with the expectation of limitless possibilities.
John couldn’t sleep that night, not from nervousness over his Latin final the next day, but from that look on Charlotte Rampling’s face. The look that said, here was a woman who knew a good thing when she saw one. John had never seen that look on any woman’s face before. Certainly not on the face of Mary Alice Dowd, or any of the other girls at Our Lady of Perpetual Conception. He swore to himself that, one day, he would see that look in person. So he sat down and made a plan.
Through very thorough research, John found out that Charlotte Rampling lived in Dorset, on England’s southwest coast, in the village of Lyme Regis, about a three-hour train ride from London. He made up a story for his parents about going skiing in Vermont, packed his bags, and headed out to Logan Airport where he boarded British Airways flight 1181, and began the journey to England, and his date with destiny. It was cold and sleeting when he landed at Heathrow, but John was warmed by an inner fire and impervious to the weather. After sorting out the luggage/customs ritual, he took a cab for London.
At Charing Cross he boarded the Dover train, and got off at Waterloo Station, the first stop on the line. Within ten minutes he boarded the Weymouth train, which would take him to the coast. He sat in the club car, ordered a glass of Porter, and watched the towns and villages of southern England parading by his train window, all decked out in their Christmas finery, a spectacle to see. And he began to wonder, “What if she’s not home? What if she’s away on holiday?” But then he remembered having read an interview she had given to some movie magazine where she said, “There’s no place like Dorset for the Holidays”. He smiled, knowing that this year he would spend Christmas Eve like he had spent no other. This year he would spend Christmas Eve showing it to Charlotte.
Icy darkness descended on Weymouth, as John’s train reached its destination. He lugged his bags onto the Station platform, and wondered to himself why he had packed so much stuff? “Maybe”, he thought, “just maybe, once she had seen his goods, she would invite him to stay the night”. After all, that’s what happened with Sean Connery.
The cab ride from Weymouth to Lyme Regis took about thirty minutes. Not wanting to drag his luggage around with him he asked the driver to take him to the best Hotel. The desk clerk at The Royal Lion told him they were full up, and suggested The Mariner Hotel, just down the Street. The Mariner was booked solid for the Holidays, as was The Swallow’s Eaves, The Orchard Country, The Kersbrook, and The Dower House. The irony of “no room at the inn” on Christmas Eve did not escape our hero as he continued his search for a place to stay. Finally he gave the desk clerk at the totally booked Channel House a few pounds to watch his bags, sat down to a nice cup of tea and contemplated his next move.
He looked at the address on the crumpled piece of paper that he took from his pocket. Number 15 Blue Dolphin Way. This was the address. Her address. Charlotte Rampling’s address. He asked directions outside the Channel House and was told it was a short walk up the hill and to the right. John’s journey was nearly at its end, as he began the climb. The rain and sleet came down harder now, but our rain soaked hero was still warmed by that inner fire that made weather irrelevant. He passed a few sign posts on his climb. Tattersall Way, then Judith’s Close, and finally here it was, Blue Dolphin Way. And right there on the mailbox, just under the number ‘15’, were the initials C. R. He was home. Her Home. Charlotte Rampling’s Home. And home she was indeed. The house was adorned with hundreds of Christmas lights and decorations of all sorts. John could see movement through the first floor window, and there, to his overwhelming joy, was Charlotte Rampling, decorating her tree. He was unprepared as to what to do next. Should he remove his clothes and simply knock on her door? Should he expose himself to her through the window? He hadn’t really thought this through. When he first saw her mailbox he had noticed that the flag was up. She had not gone out to fetch her mail today. Maybe it was just raining too hard. Maybe she simply forgot. At any rate he felt certain that, sooner or later, she would make the trek to the mailbox, and that’s when he would confront her. That would be his moment of triumph.
As he watched through her window, she walked over to the front door and took a yellow slicker of its hook. This was it. The moment was here. She was going to fetch her mail, and our hero was up to the task at hand. He raced back out to the gate, tearing off articles of clothing as he ran and, naked as the day he was born, stood next to her mailbox, proud, and tall, and all hers. He could hear the front door to the house open and close, and the sound of a distant voice singing. She was singing. As the sound of her footsteps approached he could barely make out the words and melody. “Some day……my prince….will come”. She was singing “Someday My Prince Will Come”, from Snow White, and her prince he was indeed. Standing there in the driving rain and sleet, naked as a Jaybird was our John, the sexually repressed Irish Catholic kid from Boston who, once upon a time saw Sean Connery standing naked and tall in front of this very same Charlotte Rampling, the result of which was the beginning of a whole new civilization of little Seans and Charlottes to populate a brave new world filled with hope for the future, and Sean Connery’s endless erection. And here she was approaching her mailbox right next to her naked, soggy prince who traveled all these countless miles to fulfill a destiny that they both surely shared here in the driving English rain. And they stood there, together for that one endless moment, until she reached down, grabbed her mail, spun around and, still singing, walked back to the house.
It’s hard to tell just how long John stood there, naked in the driving winter rain, before he realized that she hadn’t noticed him. Or had she? He will never really know for sure. On the train heading back to London John wondered whether or not this was the dumbest thing he had ever done. No, it wasn’t. He had done much dumber things than this, without one tenth the satisfaction he got from standing there naked with Charlotte Rampling on that rainy Christmas Eve in Dorset, totally prepared to populate a brave new world with little Johns and Charlottes, if only she had noticed him standing there. John prefers to think that she did notice him. Maybe she really did notice him, but was just too polite to say anything. And if she had said something, what would it have been? As his plane began its final approach to Logan Airport, John realized exactly what she would have said. As he stood there, naked and cold, in the driving Dorset rain, she would have looked at him and smiled, and said, “Merry Christmas John”. The English are like that.
© 2006 Shaun Costello
Remembered, forgotten, and remembered again.
In the fall of 1976, America’s bicentennial year, I was in the midst of moving from my rent controlled apartment in Manhattan’s East Twenties to a farm in the tiny hamlet of Krumville, about ninety minutes north of the city. During the first week in September, my girlfriend Harriett, myself, my dog “Miss Coney Island”, and our three cats – Spiegel, Fatty, and Rose, all squeezed into the confines of a U-Hall truck, and made the trek to the foothills of the Catskill Mountains. I had made arrangements for our two horses to be shipped from the barn in New Jersey, where we boarded them, and delivered to the farm the following week. Before the unpacking even began, the phone rang. It was Sid Levine from Star Distributors. He needed to see me right away, very important, couldn’t wait. So I left the unpacking to Harriett, got in the car, and made the drive back down to the city.
Star Distributors, my main source of income in those days, was the porno unit of the DeCavalcante crime family. In the beginning, I only dealt with Sid Levine, but after three years I had become Star’s largest single supplier of feature product and, one by one, the major players revealed themselves to me. Robert (Dibi) DiBernardo, a Capo in the DeCavalcante family, was the boss. Teddy Rothstein and Andrew (Andre) D’Apice worked under him, and each of them handled a different part of the business. I guess, for legal reasons, they were seldom seen together in public, and even had offices in different buildings. Two of these buildings, where Dibi and Andre rented space, were owned by the husband of Geraldine Ferarro, a fact made public when she ran for Vice President. By now, my presence was so familiar that, often when Sid called me down for a meeting, Andre, or even sometimes Dibi himself, would stop by to say hello. These guys were not cowboys. Dibi was a well dressed, soft spoken, polite businessman, and he ran Star that way. When I first found out that I was dealing with the Mafia, I have to admit to a few anxious moments, but my fears evaporated quickly. I was a rare commodity in their world, a completely dependable supplier. They needed me, and acted accordingly. They were not the violent end of the Cosa Nostra, they were businessmen. In all the years I dealt with them there was never a problem. They paid promptly for a product that was delivered on time and on budget. The danger of dealing with gangsters, which both scared me and thrilled me, never really materialized. At least not yet.
Sid was looking grim when I got to his office, and he didn’t waste any time. “Look, I’m a grandfather and I’m ashamed to have to ask you this, but they need an enema movie.” I didn’t want to break the mood so my inner chuckle never surfaced, but it was close. An enema movie????? Sid had been given an audio cassette recording of something called “The Enema Bandit”, which had a scene in which an effete Doctor, assisted by an evil nurse, gave an elaborately staged enema to a bound and gagged young girl. On the tape, he announced that he was going to use a device called the Bardex Inflatable Nozzle. So I’m thinking that this just might be the funniest single thing I’d ever heard, but of course I didn’t tell this to Sid. Evidently this idea came from a magazine article, alleged to be a true story, about an enema fetishist who went on a cleansing spree on the campus of the University of Illinois at Urbana, and forcibly administered enemas to coeds. He was convicted on felony assault charges and was presently serving out his sentence at their state penitentiary. Because no actual rape had been involved, only a cleansing procedure, a kind of celebrity status was claimed by the “Enema Bandit’s” victims. Hoping to be interviewed by the press, co-eds left their dorm room doors unlocked, in order to make the notorious “Bandit’s” enema spree easier for him. After all, it was only water.
“Look, it’s a true story”, claimed Sid. “You’ve got to help me here. Dibi thinks a movie about this stuff will make a bundle”. Dibi was Sid’s boss, and what Dibi wanted, Dibi got. I told Sid not to worry – that I would go through all the material he had given me, and I would come up with something. So cassette and magazine in hand, I headed for the elevator. The door slid open and there stood Dibi, and the conversation went something like: “Hey Shaun, how’s it shakin? You speak to Sid?’ I nodded yes. “Look, I don’t want to know about this thing. You just do whatever Sid tells you. I don’t want to see it. I don’t want to know about it. I don’t want to talk about it. OK? Understand? I don’t want anybody to know I was involved in this thing. OK? Got it?” So Sid was ashamed of it, Dibi didn’t want to know about it, and I began pre-production on what, until this day, is still considered to be the most outrageous porno film ever made.
The answer print of “Waterpower” was never seen by Sid Levine, Dibi, or anyone else at Star Distributors. I simply described it over the phone to Sid, who whispered, “What do you think? Is it good? Don’t let me down now”. I told him it was fine. That he was getting what he asked for. So an embarrassed Sid Levine called the lab, and made the release print order, and a film that none of them had ever seen went into distribution.
“Waterpower” opened to empty houses wherever it played. Theater owners were scared of it, and audiences didn’t know what to make of it, and I was not surprised by either. I had seen Scorscese’s “Taxi Driver” just before Sid asked me to make the picture, and thought that my friend Jamie Gillis would make a great Travis Bickle, only on foot, prowling Manhattan’s jungles, looking for evil bitches to cleanse. I used Taxi Driver’s diary voice-over narrative, and even some of Bernard Herrmann’s music score. Stealing music was one of my specialties, and I never got caught. Dibi had said to me, “Just make the thing”, and that’s exactly what I did. Since I would be making this movie without parental supervision, I was free to turn it into a parody of itself. I wrote a ludicrous script, hired my favorite actors; Jamie, Marlene Willoughby, and Rob Everett, and went about shooting what I still think is the funniest movie I ever made. Of course, there was always the chance that Dibi and the boys Downtown would catch on to what I was doing, and I would sleep with the fishes, but I didn’t think so. I had long-before made a friend of living with risk, and with “Waterpower” I was willing to go the distance.
The edited negative that I delivered to Guffanti Film Labs was 71 minutes long, 70 being the minimum length for a feature film in distribution on the Porn Circuit in those days. I shot the picture on 16MM film, in four days, for a total budget of $16,000. Post production took another six weeks. Delivering a watchable 71 minutes for only $16,000 was impossible, but I was satisfied if I could get away with a scene or two that somehow worked from beginning to end. I had written some deliciously absurd dialogue, and Jamie, Marlene, and Rob did wonders with it. Jamie’s reading of the “Bandit’s” diary narration may be the best piece of acting he ever did.
After two years in distribution, and not having even recouped its meager negative cost, Waterpower was shelved, until somebody at Star Distributors came up with the questionable idea of re-releasing the picture under a different director’s name. While Cosa Nostra families had their differences, sometimes violent, the enormous profits that they shared from organized crime’s huge involvement in pornography went smoothly. By 1978 the DeCavalcante family’s porn interests had been merged with the Gambino’s, creating an international empire of smut. The Colombo family’s profits from pictures like “Deep Thoat”, and “The Devil in Miss Jones”, both made by director Gerry Damiano, were gigantic. It was well-known that Damiano was wholly owned by the Colombo’s and did what he was told, and my old friend Dibi, now a Gambino Capo, was certainly aware of the huge profits that Gerry’s two movies had made for the Colombo family. This was the era of “Porn Chic” in New York City, and Damiano had made the television talk show circuit, and his name had become known to the public. Robert “Dibi” DiBernardo, representing DeCavalcante/Gambino interests, made the request to the Colombo family to borrow Damiano’s name, in order to insert it as the Director’s credit, on the re-release of the so-far unsuccessful “Waterpower”. Dibi now had a semi-famous director’s name for his enema epic, but he didn’t stop there. He ordered the people at Star Distributors to dip into the out takes and add 15 minutes to the length of the picture. This was a common practice in those days. If a picture didn’t work at 71 minutes, re-release it at 86 minutes, and hope that the increased length will make the difference at the box office. Of course, it didn’t. Waterpower was unwatchable at 71 minutes, and was now unthinkable at 86. Scenes that I had left on the editing room floor because the acting was so atrocious were now re-inserted to make the film longer. These guys were not rocket scientists. They thought that Damiano’s name, and the new, hideous length would do the trick. It didn’t.
After another unsuccessful year in distribution, Gerard Damiano’s 86 minute enema epic “Waterpower” was pulled and shelved. Dibi had a partner in many porn projects named Reuben Sturman who, along with associates in Europe, ruled a worldwide porn empire from his headquarters in Cleveland. Sturman took “Waterpower” off Dibi’s hands, re-titled it “Schpritz”, and opened it in the Netherlands and Germany. Bingo! It was an overnight sensation, and became a worldwide cult hit in Europe, and in Japan. I guess our European cousins must have kinkier tastes in movies. “Waterpower”, which had terrified theater owners, and puzzled movie-goers in America, was now the cinematic toast of the Continent, playing to sold-out art houses, and Champagne Openings all over Europe.
Thirty-three years after I made it for Sixteen Thousand Dollars, “Waterpower” has developed a world-wide cult following. Robert “Dibi” Diberdardo was shot in the head in 1986 by Gambino hit man Sammy “Bull” Gravano, and died, as far as I know, never having seen his enema epic. I saw a recent French DVD release of the picture, which was transferred from good source material. The picture quality was acceptable, considering its age and, while unwatchably long, it still had its moments. Marlene Willoughby’s engaging habit of raising her left eye brow when making a conversational point was as hilarious as ever, and Rob Everett was as funny as I remembered. And Jamie – well I guess Jamie will always be either cursed, or blessed, as being forever remembered as Burt, the Enema Bandit. As for me, I have to admit to a chuckle or two, while watching some of the dialogue. After all – it’s still the funniest movie I ever made.
(The above link is Randy Squalor’s “Waterpowered” video)
© 2009 Shaun Costello
MAN TELLS OF MITZVAH MOBILE NIGHTMARE
Associated Press 09/27/2010
New York Man, missing for three months, tells horror story of abduction, and forced labor at the hands of crazed Lubavichers. Ashley Shuttleworth, an unemployed typesetter, and father of two, spoke to reporters this morning at One Police Plaza, revealing his alleged kidnapping at the hands of a crazed band of Hasidic Jews, who are an extremist fringe group, formerly associated with the Lubavitcher movement, centered in Crown Heights Brooklyn. “I can’t sleep, I can’t eat, I just keep seeing those beards, those bushy beards”, revealed Mr. Shuttleworth, whose bizarre story began with his alleged abduction, on June 3rd, just outside Katz’s Delicatessen, on Houston Street, the hub of Manhattan’s Lower East Side. “There were these two guys, bearded guys in black overcoats, standing by a big van, more like a truck, I guess, with strange writing all over it – Jewish writing”, said Shuttleworth. “The only thing in English were two words, MITZVAH TANK”. One of the bearded men approached Shuttleworth and asked, “Jewish?”. When Shuttleworth said he wasn’t, the bearded man shook his hand and told him that he represented an organization that offered exciting, high paying career opportunities for non-Jews, and asked him to step into the vehicle fore more information. “It was dark in the van, then there was this smell, an acrid smell, and that’s the last thing I remember”. Shuttleworth claims to have regained consciousness in the hold of a ship, somewhere at sea, handcuffed to another of the Mitzvah Mobile’s victims. “There must have been fifty of us, there in the hold of that ship, and every guy had the same story: the bearded guys, the big van with the funny writing, the job offer for non-Jews”. According to Shuttleworth, the ship anchored in the Port of Haifa, on Israel’s coast. The abductees were forced to remain on board, and put through a rigorous indoctrination, which included frequently being drugged. “They said escape was impossible, so don’t bother trying. The main guy, the one with the biggest beard told us we would be treated well as a reward for our cooperation, and we would be expected to work, but only one day a week. Then, one day he say’s to me, ‘Do the words Shabbos Goy mean anything to you?’” Shuttleworth was told that, when his indoctrination was completed, he would be assigned to a family, and expected to answer phones, turn on and off the lights, work the computers, anything mechanical, but only on Saturdays.” Other than the isolation, the food was the worst part of his incarceration, according to Shuttleworth. “Pork, nothing but pork. I mean, I like a pork chop as much as the next guy, but Jesus”. The alleged abductees were fed nothing but pork, and porcine byproducts, and told that there were thousands more, just like them, presently going through the same indoctrination, and in many countries. Shuttleworth claims that this extremist Hasidic fringe group was involved in a world-wide plot to create a race of enslaved Shabbos Goys. He escaped, when one of the Hasidic guards evidently forgot that he was in the bathroom. He made his way to the main deck, and jumped ship, right there in Haifa Harbor. “The Marine guards at the American Embassy wouldn’t let me in, at first. I mean, I was soaking wet from swimming to shore”. Shuttleworth was flown back to New York City, and the waiting arms of his distraught family. Police Captain Jack Hogan, who is heading the investigation, told reporters, “Kidnapping is a serious crime. Looks like we’ve got some kind of white slave ring at work here, and we’re going to put the kibosh on it, I’ll tell you that”. Police have begun the process of impounding the Mitzvah Tank vehicles in all five boroughs. At Lubavitcher Headquarters, on Eastern Parkway in Brooklyn, Rabbi Shnuer Zuckerman was quoted as saying, “Meshugenah! That’s what they are, these Mitzvah Mobile gonifs. Meshugenah. You want a Shabbos Goy – you pay a Shabbos Goy”. Mr Shuttleworth has evidently been approached by Argosy Magazine, to tell his tragic story of abduction, and Goyishe enslavement. Mayor Bloomberg’s office refused comment.
© 2010 Shaun Costello
Making my bones in Pornography
In the cold months of winter, Manhattan apartments back in the early Seventies, as I’m sure they do today, resonated with the clanky noises that accompanied the warmth provided by the hot-water radiators that were the common source of heat in most buildings. The clank, clank, click-click-click, clank as the hot water replaced the cold in the pipes leading to the radiating units, followed by the phsssssssssssssssssssssssssssst, as the steam safety valves on the those units went into action protecting the tenants from the danger and inconvenience of exploding pipes. The ability to sleep through this racket was the sign of a true New Yorker. While tourists probably got little sleep terrified that the radiators in their midtown hotel rooms were about to burst, scalding them to death, the hardened veterans of Gotham simply slept through the noise, waiting for their clock radios to start their day. My building was no different, maybe even louder than most, but the clanking never bothered me, and I didn’t need an alarm clock. Each morning between 6 and 7, I would feel the annoying, but reassuring sensation of little teeth gently biting down on the tip of my nose. This was my cat Spiegel, demanding breakfast, and there was no escaping him. So I got up, fed the cat, made coffee, and jumped in the shower, the beginning of just another day in the life of a sex addict.
It was a cold five-block walk to the Lexington Avenue subway station at 23rd Street, where I took the Number Four train to Grand Central Station. Then the long walk down sour-smelling corridors to the Times Square Shuttle, which deposited me underneath what some people have called the cross roads of the world. The Times Square subway station was an intense assault on the senses. A sudden, almost overwhelming surge of smells and filth hit you as the train doors slid open to the rush of urine, and cotton candy, and damp humanity, and hot dogs on their revolving spits, and vomit, and baked goods like crumb cakes and bran muffins and pretzels, and the garlicky pungent scent of Gyros slowly rotating, and everything suddenly interrupted by someone chasing a pick-pocket through outstretched hands asking for dimes, and a tidal swarm of the disenfranchised huddled in groups, trying to stay warm. And this entire sensory phantasmagoria was musically scored by the overmodulated sound of Kool and the Gang wailing “Jungle Boogie” from the cheap speakers over the door to the subterranean record store. And then the cold again as I climbed the stairs to the street, and there it was. The Deuce.
Forty Second Street between Times Square and Eighth Avenue had pretty much the same chaotic intensity as the subway station, except brighter and colder. The sidewalks were covered with evidence of the previous night’s activities, and silent men with brooms were sweeping out the entrances to the many movie houses that provided a dark haven for degenerates on the prowl, and warm place to sleep for those who had no alternative. When I was a bit younger I spent many a night with friends from High School in these theaters, where you could see three action pictures for a buck, and where the predominantly black audience threw empty soda cans at the screen to warn the hero that a bad guy was sneaking up behind him. Even this early in the morning the pedestrian traffic was heavy. The owners of most of the storefronts were busy opening the security screens, revealing cheap discount goods and services of every variety imaginable. Men’s clothing, Army/Navy, cheap electronics, Peep-O-Rama, Nedicks, GIRLS/GIRLS/GIRLS, Souvlaki/Gyros, Tad’s Steaks, Pinball-Palace, Te-Amo Cigars, Orange Julius, Modell Sporting Goods, Movieland, all opening up for another day on “The Deuce”.
Why I found this degenerate atmosphere to be the soothing, nurturing, cradle of comfort that drew me like a moth to a flame, is difficult to describe, particularly to those who never experienced it, or never needed to. Today’s Forty Second Street is a Disney-driven, squeaky-clean, family friendly, vanilla canyon of imitative tourist attractions that might just as well be found in Kansas or, better yet, Orlando. But back then, before the bulldozers cleared away the grunge of reality to make room for the plasticine, cellophane wrapped Valhalla that would replace it, “The Deuce” was the Mecca for those restless souls who prowled the canyons of Manhattan’s West Forties looking for the shit.
On the north side of the street, just about half way between Seventh and Eighth Avenues, squeezed between Modell’s Sporting Goods, and the Harem Adult Theater, was Sal’s book store. A small venue, about ten feet wide and twice again as deep, Sal’s adult retail emporium was divided into two worlds of trade – ‘over’, and ‘under’ the counter. Over the counter, Sal offered soft-core nudie magazines, erotic books, adult party favors, and 8MM adult-oriented movies, which mostly consisted of volleyball games in nudist parks. But if you knew the secret word, or could mention a name that might be familiar to the owner, or if Sal just happened to like your face, then the world of ‘under-the-counter’ would be made available to you. This included hard core pornographic magazines, movies, and party favors like decks of playing cards adorned with photos of teenage girls giving blowjobs, all of which were sold illegally. This establishment was what was known, in those days, as a Dirty Book Store. Sal lived just across the river, in Jersey City, and as a reward for being a good fella in his neighborhood, was given the store to run by the real owners, New Jersey’s DeCavalcante crime family, who would become the inspiration, three decades later, for the television series “The Sopranos”. But these were pre-Godfather days, and no one knew much about the Cosa-Nostra, so most people thought that Sal owned his own business. He had an assistant named Nick, who was a former New York City cop. The word was that Nick had been thrown off the Force for one thing or another but, whenever asked about it, he became surly and agitated, referring to New York’s finest as ungrateful scumbags. To the world at large, Sal’s book store was what it appeared to be, but to the street people of Times Square it was something else again – a message center and networking conduit between the street, and the men in the shadows who owned the street. Pornographers, would-be pimps, wannabe wise guys, and out-of-work actors who made money having sex in front of cameras all checked in regularly with Sal. These were mostly transients who lived in SRO’s, and had no phone of their own, so Sal put them in touch with each other. Nick, who spent most of his off-hours lurking in the labyrinth of the Port Authority Bus Terminal, trolling for teenage runaways from the Midwest, was a source of acting talent for most of New York’s adult film impresarios. When a film maker with some adult footage to sell, approached a theater, he got no further than the box office. The men who ran the theaters lived in the shadows. In order to reach them, you had to speak to Sal. Sal could arrange a meeting. The route from the street into the shadows could only be traveled through Sal. Sal was the conduit. Sal was the man.
By the winter of 1970, I had been acting, on and off, for about two years, in porn loops, which were ten minute sex shorts that had been called stag films in earlier days. I had quit my job as a magazine editor in 1969, and found myself hanging out in the balconies of sleazy adult theaters looking at images of naked women. I’m not sure what a sex addiction is exactly, but my attraction to pornography had certainly become an obsession. I was a willing victim of my own carnality, gladly spending too much time staring at lurid images projected on the screens of the sleazy venues I frequented. An evening of balcony time in one of Times Square’s porno houses wouldn’t be complete without a stop at Sal’s book store to see what was happening. Sal or Nick would be sitting behind the counter in the front of the store, greeting customers, and intimidating would-be shoplifters with an always-ready baseball bat that hung above the counter, next to the door.
“Hey, look at this. Look who’s here. Shaunie boy, Hollywood’s finest. Lookin’ good”.
“Hi Sal. How’s business?”
“You don’t see me complaining. Hey, I saw you in something the other night. It starts out with you and some young brunette playing strip poker. Then when she gets naked, she goes down on you. What a piece-a-tail. I never saw her before”.
“Sounds like every loop I’ve been in Sal”.
“Hey kid, you know a guy named Smitty? Skinny Jamaican guy? Talks funny?”
“Anyway, he’s looking for some people. I told him about you. He’ll be here around Ten. You should meet this guy”.
He was there around Ten, and so was I, and this is how I first met Smitty, an illiterate Jamaican street hustler who dabbled in the production of porn loops, and needed a hand putting it all together. Smitty had no known address. He had no phone. If you wanted to reach out to Smitty, you called Sal. No one knew how he came up with the money, but he did, and frequently – enough to pay four or five actors, a cameraman, and a shooting location for the day’s work. After a few of Smitty’s productions, it became obvious that he was involved in something beyond either his experience or his ability. So, seeing an opportunity, I volunteered to help him out. I told him that I would direct his loops, find the actors, hire the cameraman, and arrange for an apartment for the day, and that he would not have to pay me anything extra – just the hundred dollars he was already paying me as an actor. All he had to do was show up with the money to pay everyone. Smitty jumped at the chance, and we began an arrangement that lasted about six months, during which time I learned, on an admittedly primitive level, the basics of film making.
My phone would ring. “Hey Shun, we make films – you got girls?” So I would call my friends Herb (later known as Harry Reems), and Fred Lincoln, and then of course Nick, at Sal’s book store, to see if he had any recent luck at the Port Authority. There was always a cameraman available who, for one of Smitty’s crisp hundred dollar bills, would show up with a camera and some lights. An apartment was easily arranged, since the owner would get to watch the day’s activities, and might even offer to participate, if needed.
At the end of the day, Smitty would pay each participant a hundred bucks, and walk away with four loops, each one shot on a four hundred foot roll of 16 millimeter film. In order to guarantee that the footage was camera original, Smitty’s customer would buy the rolls of film unprocessed. This meant that all of the editing involved in creating a little story for each loop had to be done while shooting. A wide shot had to be followed by a close up. Reaction takes of faces, cutaway shots to keep the flow moving, all had to be done in a certain order. I would sit down and make shot lists for each loop. These shot lists, though primitive, were the precursors to the system I would create a few years later, when I was mass producing One-Day-Wonders. After about six months of making Smitty’s loops, I felt that I was ready to take the next step, but I wasn’t sure what that step would be.
I wanted to make a feature length film, but had no idea where to start. I had neither the experience nor the financing necessary to attempt such an improbable endeavor. Other than directing Smitty’s porn loops, my film experience was strictly limited to what I saw from my seat in the balcony. I had divided my movie-watching evenly, between the Elgin Cinema on Eighth Avenue, where I was mesmerized by the films of Welles, Bunuel, Godard, Hawkes, and Fellini – the decaying and cavernous movie palaces of 42nd Street, where you could see three action flicks for a buck – and the adult film houses of Times Square, where I soothed my sex addiction. I didn’t just watch movies, I devoured them, and the films I liked, I saw repeatedly – over and over; thinking them through, dissecting them, analyzing them, taking them apart and putting them back together again. Why did that scene end in a close-up? How did they make the blood seem so real? Why is the angle of the camera so low? What makes a director choose one lens over another? Why does the same shot look so different from the first row than it does from the back of the theater? How could I, with no experience and no money, make a movie? There must be a way.
The road from the improbable to the possible has many twists and turns, and depends, in order to reach a successful destination, on circumstance, and sometimes – just plain luck. I needed to create a movie that, because of its genre, would guarantee a safe return on its investment, and because of its careful construction, would cost almost nothing to make. Porn was cheap to produce, but theatrical distribution of feature length sex films was in its infancy, and the legal problems involved made it dangerous. Cheap Horror/Splatter movies might cost a bit more, but there was no guarantee that a buyer could be found for the finished product. I began to think about combining the two, sex and violence – it worked for James Bond. And I needed the money to make it happen.
In 1970 the courts, in an effort to clarify their position on obscenity, ruled that material that was found to contain redeeming social value could not be found to be legally obscene. This meant that, a film that contained hard core sex scenes, could be exhibited theatrically as long as that film also contained a story that could be construed as having redeeming social value. The Genie was out of the bottle.
The war in Vietnam had become an all-pervasive element in the American experience, but no one had yet released a movie that featured the war as central to its plot. Putting a series of sex scenes together would be relatively easy, even for a novice like me, but justifying those scenes with a story line that would give the film redeeming social value would be tricky. So I began an outline about a deranged Vietnam Vet, who brings his war home with him and goes on a rape and murder spree. There would be rape, so there would be sex, and our hero’s war-induced psychosis would legally justify that sex. Because he had raped and murdered, he would have to be sacrificed on the altar of morality, and blow his brains out in the final reel. I now felt that I had an idea for a sex film that could be safely distributed theatrically.
I had a childhood friend who had become fascinated by what I was doing. He was bored. His marriage was on the rocks, and he was susceptible to the distraction that my involvement in pornography provided for him. We had discussed my Vietnam Vet on a rape and murder spree idea, and he loved it. Then, quite unexpectedly, he got a check in the mail. If I could do this project for five thousand dollars, he would put up the money.
So I began the process of budgeting “Forced Entry”, my first feature. I knew the existing talent pool for porn films from my days directing loops for Smitty, so finding actors would not be a problem. Talent wise, a shooting day on a feature would probably cost the same as a day of shooting loops. The cast would be about the same size, maybe even smaller, since I planned to shoot the necessary footage in two days. The crew however, would need to be larger. I would need a cameraman, a sound recordist, and someone to help carry equipment from one shooting location to the next. Our helper wound up being the film’s backer. Location fees could be avoided by persuading friends and family to let me shoot scenes in their apartments for free. I would need to feed the cast and crew for the two shooting days, but that would be minimal.
I then called Eastman Kodak to find out the cost of 16 millimeter raw stock. Each 400 foot roll of 16MM stock ran approximately ten minutes, so a seventy minute movie that was shot at a ratio on two to one (How I came up with this ratio is still a mystery to me) would require the purchase of 14 rolls of film. I now had to figure out the cost of post-production, which was beyond my experience, but somehow I marched forward with an over-confidence that, even now, amazes me. I had met Frank and Vinnie at A-1 Film Labs through Simon Nuchtern at August Films, who pretended to be a legitimate film maker, but whose rent was paid from porn revenues. A-1 gave me a reasonable price on developing my 14 rolls of camera original and providing a matching work-print. This work print was needed in order to edit the picture, and would be matched back to the camera original once the editing process was completed. I would need stock footage of Vietnam, which was readily available for a price, and music which I intended to steal. When I put all of the numbers together I found that, if I was careful, I could complete the film within a budget of five thousand dollars.
There was never any doubt about casting the part of our deranged hero. My friend Harry Reams was involved in early discussions about the film’s plot, and gave me solid input about how the character should be played. He was excited about the opportunity, and his enthusiasm became contagious. Jutta David would play Harry’s first victim, and actually had the only non-violent sex scene in the film. Laura Cannon, who had been pounding the pavement, looking for acting opportunities, was perfect as Harry’s second victim. Laura’s scene, even now, 38 years later, is still talked about as being so realistic that it’s difficult to sit through. I now had the makings of a good cast, and began looking for a cameraman.
I had met Joel Shapiro through Simon Nuchtern at August Films. He had just graduated from NYU Film School, and was shooting loops for Simon to break-in his new French ‘Éclair’ NPR 16MM camera which, in those days, was the work horse of the documentary cameraman. Joel was an intense guy who was open to ideas, and unafraid to try almost anything. He was a walking encyclopedia on American and European cinema, and I was a good listener. Joel told me that he would provide a sound recordist, and they understood that there would be no overtime. They would work until they dropped which, with a budget this small, was unfortunate but necessary. We needed to shoot all of the footage in just two days, in the Chelsea section of Manhattan, and in Forest Hills, out in the borough of Queens.
It was now time to determine the weaponry with which our psychopathic hero would terrorize the unsuspecting women of Gotham. He would frighten with a gun, but kill with a knife. A 38 caliber revolver, with its barrel partially blocked so that it could only fire blanks, was readily available from Center Firearms, the main supplier of guns to movies that were shot in New York City. Although he would carry the revolver with him throughout his rape and murder spree, he would use it only once, on himself in the final reel. A cutaway knife, a theatrical device used on stages for centuries, was also available for rent from Center Firearms. When pressed forward, in a stabbing motion, the blade would retract into the handle, and when the knife was pulled back the blade, which worked on a spring inside the handle, would reappear. A simple device, but combined with the dramatic elements of a screaming victim, and gushing blood, the effect could be startlingly realistic. Our troubled hero would, for reasons of photographic theatricality, kill with both a slashing, and a stabbing motion, and each method of mayhem would require its own technical solution. I spent many hours going over the death scenes with Harry, and the solution seemed simple. From a local hardware store I bought a turkey baster, which had a rubber bulb that I detached. I ran some catheter through the hole in the bulb, and secured it with gaffers tape. The bulb would be filled with Stein’s color corrected stage blood. (yes, there really is such a thing) If Harry could hide the bulb in his hand, and gently squeeze as he ran the blade across the throat of his victim, the blood should appear to be gushing from that victim’s slashed throat. Because of the obvious mess the stage blood would make, we did not rehearse the blood rig. We went over the choreography involved in each death scene, but Harry waited for the first actual camera take to squeeze the bulb. And it worked on the very first take. So much for Jutta David. For Laura Cannon, I needed Harry to stab, in a forward motion. The blade in the cutaway knife would retract and reappear with the forward and backward motion, but the problem of gushing blood was quite different. It seemed to me that if, after stabbing forward, Harry would squeeze his trusty bulb hard as he pulled out the knife, then the stage blood would shoot forward and bounce back off Laura’s skin, appearing as though it was gushing from the stab wound. Again, it worked on the first take. The Gods of blood rigs, and of risk takers were smiling on me. None of this gimmickry would be have been believable however, without the amazing performance of Laura Cannon, who was so involved with realistically dying, that she remained motionless, in a pool of Stein’s Sage Blood, for five minutes after the scene was completed, scaring the daylights out of the crew. After two, very long, exhausting shooting days, all of the shots on my list were accomplished, without the sound of a single complaint from cast or crew about the impossible schedule. It was, as they say, a wrap.
Post production, an area at which I had no experience, proved much more difficult, and dragged on for many months. I had rented a 16MM stand-up Moviola editing machine, and sat in front of it looking at the footage I had created, but had no idea how to put it all together. For the sake of my friend, who put up the money, and didn’t know I was pretending, I pretended. My only experience had been directing Smitty’s loops, and now I had to deal with cutting scenes of sound and picture together, into an order that made some kind of sense. I became frustrated and distracted, and looked for any excuse to absent myself from the editing room, the cost of which was adding dollars to the budget every month that the process dragged on. My friend’s wife was nagging at him to somehow get his money back, and our life-long friendship was now in jeopardy. I had become involved in another project, a docucomedy called “LOOPS”, with Bill Markle, an experienced cameraman and editor. I learned enough about editing in a few months with Bill to complete Forced Entry. We screened it for an independent producer named Gerry Intrator, who offered us $6,500. This was three hundred dollars more than my friend had invested so, although we had made no profit, at least we had suffered no loss. We shook hands with Intrator, and I felt like a great weight had been lifted from my shoulders. It was time to move on.
But I had done it. I had made my first movie. I had no idea what I was doing, but for $6,200 I had written, produced, and directed a movie that, 38 years later, is still freaking people out.
© 2009 Shaun Costello