Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Vintage Espionage I

Chronicle Books, ISBN-13: 978-0811828871, 2001
Title : Red Scared! : The Commie Menace in Propaganda and Popular Culture
Authors : Michael Barson, Stephen Heller

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The subtitle pretty much says it all in describing this immensely enjoyable tome. The authors go to pains to express that the book is not an apology for the real Soviet threat posed by its military, and by extension, its spy apparatus, to the Western democracies in the roughly two decades following the Second World War. Rather, Red Sacred! is a pulpy, camp romp through the excesses and absurdities of Cold War imagery [1].

Ace graphic arts commentators Barson and Heller contribute a sprightly text but the real joy is the plethora of over-the-top illustrations from books, movie posters, advertisements, magazines et al, in all their orange-, red- (no pun intended), and yellow-splattered glory.

The style is vintage paperback lurid all the way, and almost every page is a visual delight, and thus it’s difficult to pick out some favorites, but I’ll try anyway! The poster for the film The Red Menace [2], which has been described as the Reefer Madness of Cold War movies; an article from the magazine True Pictorial Stories, April 1940 (“The Mysterious Woman Who Rules Stalin”), which posits the unlikely concept of Stalin-as-romantic heartthrob; the hopelessly in bad taste paperback Red Rape, the cover of which takes vintage sleaze to new heights (or would it be lows?) [3]; the poster for the film I Married a Communist (aka The Woman on Pier 13), which features a sexy photo of a ‘nameless, shameless woman!’ (Janis Carter), who has a crazed look in her eyes and a sinister smile with gleaming, wolf-like teeth (perhaps de rigueur qualities for Red seductresses) [4].

[1] For more scholarly takes on Cold War pop culture in the 1950s, see : Meredith Hohe, American dreams and Red nightmares : popular media and the framing of a Cold War enemy, 1949-1962, Master’s thesis (M.A.), Ohio University, 2010; Thomas Doherty, Cold war, cool medium: television, McCarthyism, and American culture, New York, Columbia University Press, 2003; Margot A. Henrikson,  Dr. Strangelove’s America: society and culture in the atomic age, Berkeley, University of California Press, 1997; Douglas Field, American Cold War culture, Edinburgh, Edinburgh University Press, 2005; Greg Barnhisel, Catherine Turner,  Pressing the fight : print, propaganda, and the Cold War, Amherst, University of Massachusetts Press, 2010.
[2] I just saw a clip from this film on YouTube. Actually it's pretty good, in a camp sort of way.
[3] But for the ultimate in kitschy sleaze see the cover of the unforgettable [alas not referenced in Red Scared], Commie Sex Trap.
[4] Or as one commentator colorfully describes the phenomenon of the Red femme fatale : “That fixture of 1940s noir, the femme fatale, is prominently featured in I Married a Communist; Janis Carter’s predatory image dominates not only the film itself, but all the publicity materials for the project. ‘Nameless, shameless woman,’ the poster screams. ‘Trained in an art as old as time . . . trading her love . . . yielding kisses that invite disaster, destroy, then – KILL!,’ superimposed over the image of Carter spilling out of a low-cut evening gown, her hair swept back in a platinum blonde hairdo, as her teeth glisten with an almost vampiric urgency.” (Wheeler Winston Dixon, Film Noir and the Cinema of Paranoia, New Brunswick, N. J., Rutgers University Press, 2009, pp. 82-83). For more on the American cinema’s response to the Red Scare, see Better Dead Than… the “Red” Communist Films during the 1950…, which includes a list of films, with commentary, that were in one way or another influenced by the Red Scare era.

Arrow Books Ltd, No. 576 [Reprint edition, 1963]
Title : The Eunuch of Stamboul
[First published in harcover, London, Hutchinson & Co., 1935]
Author : Dennis Wheatley
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Eunuch is a Between-the-Wars story by the now largely forgotten British mystery author Dennis Wheatley. The plot is about a gentleman amateur spy, Captain Destine, who is dispatched to Turkey to foil a plot to overthrow the Ataturk regime and restore an Islamic theocracy to power. The Arrow reprint benefits from the unforgettable [and, alas, uncredited] cover art of the title character. The orange-red halo that engulfs the entire front cover creates a subtly sinister effect. The guy on the cover is not the kind of character I would want to meet in the proverbial dark alley! The novel was the basis for the 1936 film Secret of Stamboul (a.k.a. The Spy in White) starring James Mason.


Pennant #P3, 1953 
Title : Epitaph for a Spy
[First published in harcover, London, Hodder & Stoughton, Ltd., 1938.]
Author : Eric Ambler
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“Prostitution may be the oldest profession in the world but that of the spy cannot be much younger.” - Eric Ambler, Footnote to Epitaph for a Spy

An ordinary man of uncertain citizenship finds himself caught up in international intrigue on the French Riviera over a mistaken roll of film. Epitaph for a Spy was one of the first ‘modern’ spy thrillers, and paved the way for such later writers as Ian Fleming, John Le CarrĂ©, and Robert Ludlum. The 1953 Pennant reissue features stunning cover art by an uncredited artist. The Cold War was at its peak and the cover updates the interrogation scene to depict a very threatening and decidedly Sovietesque police chief questioning a down-and-out prisoner as a guard hovers nearby.

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