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Tuesday, June 20, 2017

BRIT SPY—MAN IN A SUITCASE

BRIT SPY—MAN IN A SUITCASE

While the top-notch Brit-Spy series Callan and The Sandbaggers—both of which I’ve written about in previous columns—deservedly get most of the kudos from those aficionados of cult TV, my heart belongs to a Man In A Suitcase.

For thirty episodes airing between September 1967 and April 1968, John Mac McGill as portrayed by rough edged actor Richard Bradford, was a downbeat ex-spy turned reluctant private eye. Based in London, he roamed across Europe taking freelance investigations and espionage jobs for $500 a day plus expenses. Always traveling light—his eponymous suitcase containing his little more than his clothes and his gun—he constantly and purposely makes himself a torn in the side of the British authorities, the Soviets, and his old colleagues in American espionage. 

McGill is an ex-American intelligence agent. Falsely accused of treason, he has been callously frozen out of the intelligence community and turned into a scapegoat—an easy target of retribution for the sins of others. He is a man without a home, without a country. Harassed by deadly enemies, he desperately wants to restore his reputation, but there is a major stumbling block—any serious attempt to clear his name will result in a double agent colleague being tortured or killed in the Soviet Union. This situation becomes an interesting conundrum leading to stories with more of an original twist than the average action show produced by ITC.

A method actor, Richard Bradford played the chain smoking, hard drinking, constantly beaten up McGill with a tough, but laconic ease with Brando-esque inflections—especially in his tendency to mumble dialogue. When asked at a casting meeting how tall he was, Bradford replied, How tall do you have to be? With a chiseled jaw, cat-like body language, and broad shoulders, he was the perfect actor with the perfect manner to portray the character.

The opposite of Danger Man/Secret Agent John Drake, McGill is an antihero, but not without scruples. He is prone to violence both delivered and received—fisticuffs, guns blazing, and blood flowing were common place. But while less sympathetic than Danger Man, Man In A Suitcase combined brute action and subtle humor in a distinctive, watchable style.

Created by Richard Harris and Dennis Spooner (The Avengers), the show was filmed in and around Pinewood Studios. It also did plenty of location shooting in London, which not only represented itself, but stood in for many other corners of Europe. However faked European backgrounds were, they were cleverly filmed and believable, never a distraction. McGill once landed in the village of Port Merion, Wales, where The Prisoner was film, which was filling in at the time for a corner of Italy.

In another nod to The Prisoner, one of McGill’s many lady friends tips her fingers to him in a mock salute and says, be seeing you, as he leaves her apartment. This, of course, was the gesture and catchphrase made famous in The Prisoner. To top things of, the theme and incidental music for Man in a Suitcase was composed and conducted by Rob Grainer, who also created the music for The Prisoner.

 
There was a Man In A Suitcase tie-in novel published in 1967.  The Sleeping Cupid was a surprisingly good original story written by E.G. Whitney, a pseudonym for thriller writer Ben Healey. Though British, he does a credible job with McGill’s American vernacular and attitude, with few linguistic tells. The book was published only in the U.K. strangely enough by Daily Mirror Newspapers. As this is arguably the only paperback novel released under this imprint, it may have been a test run for a line of books destined for newsagents only (as opposed to bookstores). This item is rare, but with a bit of patience, it can be found for a reasonable price. It is definetly worth the effort.

What is even more rare and far from reasonably priced is a 1.43 scale die-cast Code 3 Man In A Suitcase blue Triumph Spitfire MK2. This is a replica of the car McGill drove in the episode Variations, with detail down to the same number. It has a Man In A Suitcase display box with graphic artwork from the series and Richard Bradford's autograph printed on two sides. If this item ever pops up on e-Bay or elsewhere expect to pay $200 to $500.

  
The complete series of Man In A Suitcase can be obtained in DVD in several formats.  All episode in one set can be purchase in a U.K. region 2 (non-US) set, or the episodes have been split into two sets for the US DVD market. The resolution is excellent as the discs have been transferred directly from the original prints. There are also many extras, including trailers, foreign titles, bumpers, behind-the-scene stills, a Richard Bradford interview, and a full-color booklet. Unfortunately, forty years later Bradford is a pale imitation of his athletic character. Excellent viewing...

NEXT UP: THE BARON

Sunday, June 18, 2017

BRIT SPY—THE SANDBAGGERS

 
BRIT SPY—THE SANDBAGGERS

Premiering a decade after the quintessential ‘60s British espionage series Callan—written about in a previous column—The Sandbaggers set the standard for British TV spies in the late ‘70s. Created by Ian Mackintosh, it starred Roy Marsden as spy master Neil Burnside. This was long before Marsden became indelibly linked to his portrayal of detective Adam Dalgliesh, created by P. D. James.

Running from 1978 to 1980, The Sandbaggers was grounded in the reality, the scut work, and the day to day grind of the espionage game and those who choose, willingly or not, to play it. There were no gadgets, no megalomaniacal malefactors bent on world domination, no henchmen with shark teeth or deadly bowler hats, no villains’ lairs hidden in volcanos, underseas, or outer space, and only one explosion in the entire series—which took place in the first episode. Somehow, however, this world of whispers, glances, and devious maneuvering becomes riveting, breath holding, must see DVD TV.

Series creator Ian Mackintosh, was a lifelong naval officer who was possibly involved in espionage during his career—more on this point later. In developing The Sandbaggers, he wanted to get as close to the real world of espionage as possible. To this end, he employed his own specialized knowledge of the UK espionage nexus and the modus operandi of the various branches. This effort at getting close to the truth caused great authoritarian concern. Fearing the show would reveal actual Crown secrets, the government required every episode to be reviewed and given a security clearance before being produced. One episode was axed and never filmed because it was judged to infringe on the Official Secrets Act.

The lynchpin of The Sandbaggers is taciturn Neil Burnside, Deputy Director of Operations of the UK Special Intelligence Service (SIS). His most closely guarded resource is his Special Operations Section, known as Sandbaggers—a term used to define those who deceive others about their real intentions or abilities for gain.

Burnside is on a constant slow burn—calm on the outside, raging on the inside. He is smart, obsessed with his work, passionate about protecting his unit, and willing to do anything—no matter how dirty—to get his job done. Constantly in trouble with his superiors, he is a ruthless adversary, and not a man to cross unless you want your career, your freedom—or possibly your life—to end.

Special Operations doesn't mean going in with all guns blazing. It means special planning, special care, fully briefed agents in possession of all possible alternatives. If you want James Bond, go to your library. But if you want a successful operation, sit at your desk and think, and then think again. Our battles aren't fought at the end of a parachute. They're won and lost in drab, dreary corridors in Westminster...

— Neil Burnside —
 

While Sandbaggers #2 and #3 are often killed and replaced, Sandbagger #1—Willy Caine—is a survivor despite, or maybe because of, his aversion to questionable undertakings and his phobia toward guns. Jeff Ross is the head of the CIA in London, who is Burnside’s ally and secret weapon. Diane Lawyer runs the Sandbaggers’ logistics. Her wry and dry sense of humor adds balance to the otherwise grimly austere tone of the show.

Burnside’s duties most often confine him to seedy, interchangeable, government offices. His immediate adversaries are not those of a foreign power, but petty British government officials—with more power than sense—who argued constantly about how to handle every given situation. The majority of the interference comes from the Director of SIS known as only as C. Next in order of aggravation is Burnside’s counterpart, Deputy Director Matthew Peele, a man who deeply mistrusts Burnside. And finally there is Burnside’s ex-father-in-law, Sir Geoffrey Willingham, a sometimes ally sometimes foe, who is the Permanent Undersecretary of State. To these men who opposed Burnside, agents in the field are a commodity to be used as bargaining chips and sacrificed as often as pawns on a chessboard. 

Constantly fighting for people and resources, Burnside is never able to field more than three Sandbaggers—less if one is killed on assignment. As a result, there are too many complex missions and too few Sandbaggers to minimize risks. Burnside is constantly weighing those risks against possible rewards. Often, he is compelled to make the dark choice of putting the sovereignty of the British government above the life of his agents.

The scenarios confronting The Sandbaggers are frequently ambiguous. There is never enough data, evidence, or time for Burnside to make informed life-or-death decisions. Instead, missions are run based on innuendo, rumors, and half-truths—situational guesses. Plans and strategies are heatedly discussed by government toadies jockeying for political favor and position. Miscommunication, and sometimes downright disinformation, is rampant. Bad luck and deadly coincidences abound. The screws on Burnside are constantly tightened, sometimes viciously twisted. Everyone, including allies, have hidden agendas. 

Broadcast at the height of the Cold War, The Sandbaggers played into the public fears of communism and foreign powers. Real countries and stories ripped from fearmongering headlines drove the storylines, the accompanying high stakes and intense urgency of unfolding history palpably riveting. The Sandbaggers don’t always win. Agents die, information is leaked, situations might not be what they appear—all of which can cause missions to go dramatically tits up, with caustic fallout and more finger pointing than a proctologist convention.

In July 1979, halfway through the writing of the third season of The Sandbaggers, creator and head writer Ian Mackintosh disappeared under mysterious and conspiracy theory riddled circumstances. A light aircraft carrying Mackintosh, Susan Insole (Mackintosh’s girlfriend), and pilot Graham Barber vanished over the Gulf of Alaska.

There was a distress signal sent, but no survivors or wreckage were ever found. The mystery is further complicated by two factors: Barber failed to file a flight plan, and the plane made an unexplained stop at a disused World War II airfield. 

Mackintosh left behind four completed scripts for The Sandbaggers, including the finale. Other writers were brought in to round out the full season of episodes, but the magic of The Sandbaggers resided in Mackintosh—who had written all the episodes of the first two seasons. In a story as complicated and ambiguous as the show itself, The Sandbaggers was cancelled.

Robert G. Folsom's 2012 biography, The Life and Mysterious Death of Ian MacKintosh, delves deeply into the circumstances of Mackintosh’s death, his naval career (for which he was awarded an MBE), and his success as a television writer. 

Two TV tie-ins to The Sandbaggers were published in paperback by Corgi. The first was written by Ian Mackintosh, novelizing two of his scripts from the show’s first season, and published in 1978. 

The second tie-in novel is much more rare. Published in 1980, The Sandbaggers: Think of a Number is an original novel written by Donald Lancaster—a pseudonym for Australian mystery novelist William Marshall, best known for his Yellow Thread Street mystery series. In the wake of Mackintosh’s disappearance (and to take cynical advantage of the accompanying headlines), Marshall was given ten days by the publisher to turn in the manuscript. Given the time constraint, and the fact he was working off a binge viewing (way before it became common place) of the first season of The Sandbaggers, Marshal created in a remarkably good story.

Today, The Sandbaggers deservedly remains one of the best espionage shows ever written. The three seasons of the show are available individually or in a DVD boxed set, and the tie-in novels can be tracked down with minor effort.

ADDENDUM

In 2001, bestselling author Greg Rucka began writing Queen and Country, a series of comic books heavily inspired by The Sandbaggers. Rucka stated at the time, There don’t seem to be many of us who know the glory of The Sandbaggers, but those who do and read the comic, it’s my sincere hope they’ll smile a bit and nod a bit, and recognize the debt I’m trying to pay. While Queen and Country is essentially The Sandbaggers: The Next Generation, Rucka’s handling of the series is nothing short of brilliant. The nine storylines from the original 32 issues of Queen and Country were later collected as graphic novels. 

Queen and Country focus on Tara Chace, an operative of the Special Operations Section (nicknamed minders as a substitution for sandbaggers) of Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service. As in The Sandbaggers, the action in Queen and Country is driven by maneuverings and political double dealings of government officials—all of which endangers the lives of the minders in the harsh environments of the field where they operate.

Tara Chance is not the traditional glamorous comic book heroine—far from it. She is a dressed down, hard-bitten spook realistically portrayed. Playing in the sandbox with her are two other minders, the former Head of Special Section Tom Wallace, and Edward Kittering. Other characters include Director of Operations Paul Crocker, Deputy Chief of Service Donald Weldon, Chief of Service Frances Barclay—who is, not surprisingly, commonly referred to as C

There's a trick, they teach it to you at the School. When someone pulls a gun on you, they say, ‘charge at him like a bloody lunatic. It's the last thing they expect and most of them can't hit water from a submarine anyway...and repeat to yourself over and over you're doing this for Queen and Country.’

— Tara Chace, Operation: Broken Ground

With the success of the comic series, Rucka expanding his characters into a series of successful novels.  A Gentleman's Game, was published in 2004, featuring Tara Chace and making reference to the events of the comic book series. Private Wars followed in 2005 and takes place a few months after the end of the comic series A third Queen and Country novel, The Last Run, was released in October 2010.
 
The Queen and Country graphic novels were later continued in the form of three prequels referred to as Queen and Country: Declassified. The first two were written by Rucka and the third by Antony Johnston under Rucka's supervision. They deal specifically with the past missions of various characters.
 
Four Queen and Country Definitive Edition collections are available covering the full run of the original stories and the later prequels. My recommendation is track them down immediately.


  


NEXT UP: MAN IN A SUITCASE


      

Thursday, June 15, 2017

BRIT-SPY—CALLAN

BRIT-SPY—CALLAN 

In the late ‘60s, The Man From U.N.C.L.E., Mission Impossible, I Spy, and The Wild Wild West, among many others, were riding the crest of the James Bond superspy explosion on American television. Across the pond, spies were also dominating the broadcast channels. Entertainment espionage, however, was very different on either side of the Atlantic. 

While 007 was most definitely the quintessential British spy, it was the American spy shows that followed his lead more closely. On American TV, espionage was fun—cool gadgets, maniacal villains with henchmen and hidden lairs, beautiful women, and suave, karate chopping, heroes with blindingly white teeth.

On the other side of the pond things were different. In British spy shows, espionage was business—a deadly business. Gritty, harsh, morally ambiguous, dour, and most of all, cynical, British TV spies in the ‘60s were the antithesis of Bond. It was as if Bond was a drunken relative at a party—entertaining, but embarrassing—and much must be done to regain a stiff upper lip façade.

Over the next few columns, I plan to look at the best of the British television spies and the tie-in novels connected to them.
*******
First up is the quintessential British spy series, Callan.

In the 1967 British television drama A Magnum for Schneider, the terse talking, totally pitiless secret agent David Callan became an instant touchstone of British espionage. A hugely successful television series quickly followed—running from 1967 to 1972.

Callan works for a shadowy governmental agency known as the Section, which deals with internal security threats to the United Kingdom. Using it’s carte blanche mandate, the Section is ruthless in its methods. Torture is the preferred method of interrogation, and targets sanctioned for possible assassination are so routine they come in color coded files. If the file is red, the individual inside will soon be dead. No espionage agency connected to the Western world (the supposed good guys) has ever been portrayed in such a sinister manner. Executioner, bodyguard, stone killer, Callan is a blunt instrument wielded by Hunter, his always despised and eventually hated agency control.

Created by author James Mitchell, and portrayed with callous world-weariness by actor Edward Woodward, Callan became an iconic anti-Bond—a man doing a blue collar job he often regrets, but keeps doing because it is the only thing he knows how to do—and he’s very, very good at it. It says something when a coldly calculating human stiletto is seen as a hero because he is the least morally ambiguous character in the series. 

Callan is a man without friends. A malodorous thief, known only as Lonely, is his only acquaintance—a man whom he constantly threatens and abuses. Theirs is a classic love hate relationship maintained by fear, cash, blackmail, and mutual need. Yet there remains a tight bond between the two men. They may hate each other, but they hate others more. They are two islands connected by a frayed and splintered wooden rope  bridge.

Before he began to write extensively for television, Callan creator James Mitchell started his writing career as a novelist. In the ‘60s, after several novels written under different pen names, Mitchell began a successful series of espionage novels featuring gunrunner-turned-secret agent John Craig, which he wrote using the pseudonym James Munro. 

When Callan became a British television sensation, it was a natural segue for Mitchell to write a series of books based on the character. Published under his own name, Mitchell based the first novel, A Magnum For Schneider—aka: A Red File For Callan in the USA, and later simply Callan when it was reissued to tie-in with the Callan movie release—on the original television drama. Callan is washed up. The most efficient killer in Europe is working as a book-keeper for a small, dusty merchant. But circumstances force his old boss Hunter to employ him for one last operation—eliminate a man named Schneider. A cheerful, friendly, affluent man, Schneider and Callan have a shared passion for model soldiers used in battle recreations. The operation is studded with lethal booby-traps, but Callan's own inhibitions become the most dangerous.

By the time the second Callen novel, Russian Roulette, was originally published the Callan TV series had effectively ended. However, the character continued to have a strong following.

Russian Roulette is an original novel, not tied to any television episode. It recognizes Callan for what he is—the best killer the British have ever had. His skills are inherent in his survival instincts, his stalking animal patience, and his ability to destroy without hesitation.

The KGB want Callan badly enough to ante up the top British spy held captive in the Kremlin in exchange for his corpse. The British agree. Abandoned and alone in the alleys, squares, and parks of London, unarmed and half-blind, Callan becomes fair prey for three deadly Russian KGB agents with a grudge. But Callan is still the best killer the British have, and even without a gun, he is a walking bloody arsenal.

In Death And Bright Water, Callan finds retirement is not easy for a man of his background. He believes his days with the Section are over.  He'd had enough and walked away. But a man like Callan can never escape killing and violence. When the mysterious Dr. Blythe appears with a proposition, Callan can’t refuse. It is a simple kidnapping job—getting the beautiful Sophie Kollonaki's daughter out of Crete. But on the way to the Greek island, Callan and the faithful Lonely begin to suspect Sophie is involved with the KGB—and where the KGB lurk, death is never far away.

Smear Job begins with Hunter needing two little favors from Callan. Stealing a book from a library sounds easy, except the library is in Sicily. But making sure Gunther Lesir loses a fortune at cards is a bit more of a problem, especially as Callan is no card sharp.

Neither of the favors, however, are as big a problem as Callan’s knowledge of Hunter—there would be something more, something nasty. When the twist comes, Callan finds himself on an excursion to Mexico into the dirtiest businesses in the world—drugs, prostitution, blackmail, and death.

The last Callan novel, Bonfire Night, would not appear until a number of years after Smear Job. The world has changed...Callan is rich, living in luxury in his own personal castle in Spain and in danger of falling in love. His old partner-in-crime, Lonely, is even richer—now a computer genius and businessman going straight (more or less) under the name Roger Bullivant.

The new Head of Section, codename Hunter, is a woman, but the Section no longer has a hold over Callan. Then Voss, the ex-Stasi sadist who tortured Callan in East Berlin, surfaces long enough to make an attempt on Callan’s life—endangering those to whom Callen has become close. Blood and death follow as Callan rages from London to the south of Spain, ready to bring down his own form of retribution.

The cult following for Callan, fed by Mitchell’s novels, was strong enough for a 1974 feature film, simply titled Callan, to be produced.

Following the same story presented in A Magnum for Schneider, Callan has been forced into retirement after appearing to lose his nerve. However, he is called back into service to handle the assassination of Schneider, a German businessman. His former boss, Hunter, promises Callan he'll be returned to active status if he follows orders—something Callan desperately wants as without the work, he has nothung other than staring into the void. However, as always, Callan refuses to act until he knows why Schneider has been marked for death. Worth watching for Callan completists. 

 
For all Callan fans, however, there remains a special treat. James Mitchell also wrote (at least) forty short stories featuring Callan, Lonely, and the regular members of the Section. These were originally published in Britain’s Sunday Express and syndicated in newspapers in Singapore and Australia. 

In 2014, author and Callan expert, Mike Ripley, did a vast amount of research to gather these stories together in two volumes—Callan Uncovered and Callan Uncovered 2. In my opinion, these collections are not to be missed. Their terse, stripped down, prose match Callan’s personality perfectly. The novels are very good entrées, but for a true taste of Callan, the short stories are a feast.

NEXT UP: THE SANDBAGGERS...

  
     

Friday, June 2, 2017

SIX-GUN JUSTICE

 
 THE WESTERN GENRE IN BOOKS, FILMS, AND ON TV
 
Full of six-gun blazing action, the western is an enduring American genre. This lecture and discussion led by author and genre expert Paul Bishop will explore the saga and books of western authors from the pulp fiction of Louis L’Amour to Elmore Leonard and other legendary and contemporary western authors. Movies from Randolph Scott to John Wayne to Clint Eastwood will also be discussed, along with western TV series from their heyday in the 60s AND 70s.
 
PRESENTED BY
 
 
 
IN COOPERATION WITH
 
 

FOR STUDENTS OVER 50

FOR INFO AND REGISTRATION
OR CALL
805-437-2748

THE BELOW DATES
WILL BE TWO-HOUR
 TASTE OF OLLI
LECTURES
in preparation
for a FOUR WEEK
mini-class 
SCHEDULED FOR
THE FALL SEMESTER
TUESDAY, JUNE 27 1PM to 3PM
THURSDAY, JULY 27 1PM to 3PM

Monday, May 29, 2017

WANDERING DOWN THE RABBIT HOLE

WANDERING DOWN THE RABBIT HOLE
BLOGS, WHITTINGTON, ELVIS,
NOVELIZATIONS, COVERS,
AND CHARRO!
 
I must apologize upfront. This post started out to be an examination of the brilliant cover for the Gold Medal original paperback publication of Charro! by Harry Whittington, but a rabbit hole appeared and I disappeared down it on what has become a quest of dubious proportions.
 
It all started with a six-hundred word entry I was composing about Whittington’s novel (more on this later) Charro! for an upcoming entertainment book, 52 Weeks 52 Westerns, which I am co-authoring with my partner on the project, Scott Harris. Six-hundred strictly rationed words does not go very far. There were some unusual aspects of the paperback cover for Charro! I wanted to explore, but no space to do it. I kept the entry under the proscribed word count by promising myself I would give the cover six-hundred words of its own in a separate and expanded blog post...
 
Then I fell down the rabbit hole...In researching details of the cover, I came across further interesting (at least to me) information on the novel, the movie, and the novel’s author Harry Whittington. Six-hundred words turned into eight-hundred, then a thousand—and still my fingers were flashing across the keyboard. I even had to stop long enough to return to the top of what was now an article, and add the one-hundred, then two-hundred, then more words constituting this introduction. 
 
Talk about losing control of the process...
 
BLOG POSTS
 
The general consensus in our age of limited attention spans, is nobody will read a blog post over six-hundred words—maybe eight-hundred if they are really (really, really) interested. Anything longer—oh, look, shiny! 
 
I also regularly hear nobody reads blogs anymore. If you can’t say something in an Internet word-bite—basically a bumper-stickers’ worth of organized letters scrolling up a newsfeed—you might as well not bother.
 
These contemporary edicts are exactly why I have a blog—so I can write about anything at any length. It doesn’t matter if a post is so long it can’t be experienced without the reader’s lips getting tired. It doesn’t matter if the obscure subject matter can’t distract a magpie from a gleaming pop-top (does anyone still know what those are?). It doesn’t even matter if I ramble down rabbit holes or create metaphors of vague provenance—it’s my blog. It is a place where those who understand and share the oddities of my enthusiasms are willing to engage by staying the course and sharing their own thoughts in return.
 
My point? Oh, yeah...I’m supposed to be getting to the point...Here’s a whole bunch of self-indulgent words about minutia related to Charro!—the book, the movie, Elvis, Harry Whittington, cover artist Ron Lesser, and…(you get where this is going). Wander with me down this rabbit hole at your own risk... 
 
CHARRO!—HARRY WHITTINGTON
 
There wasn’t a genre of novel Harry Whittington couldn’t write. Known as The King of the Pulps—a title he shared with high adventure writer H. Bedford-Jones—Whittington was incredibly prolific, writing over two hundred novels. On one occasion, he gunned out seven in a single month! 
 
  
Whittington started his wordslinging career writing westerns, eventually producing thirty-five tales of six-gun justice. However, it was his hardboiled crime fiction for which he became revered.
 
  
In the 80s, near the end of his career, Whittington returned to the western genre, writing a fistful of entries in the Longarm series of Adult Westerns. The series, now numbering over 400 entries, was written by numerous authors under the pseudonym Tabor Evans. Whittington’s Longarm titles (Longarm On the Humboldt, Longarm and the Golden Lady, Longarm and the Blue Norther, Longarm in Silver City, Longarm in Boulder Canyon, Longarm in the Big Thicket) are highly sought after by collectors of his work.
 
  

  
CHARRO!—THE NOVELIZATION
 
Whittington was also a go-to guy when it came to writing novelizations of movies and television series tie-in novels. Most of these were work for hire—a one-time payment against which the author surrenders all rights to the work, including any future residuals. Work for hire contracts—often written under pseudonyms—were standard for almost all novelizations or TV series tie-in books. They were eating money for many authors while they worked on other mainstream or genre books of their own.
 
Often these types of books sold well, but rarely rose to bestselling levels. However, Whittington wrote the second of Ace Books’ The Man From U.N.C.L.E. paperback original tie-in series, The Doomsday Affair, for which he was paid $1,500 on a work for hire basis.  The Man From U.N.C.L.E.  TV series was at the peak of its phenomenal popularity at the time and the book went on to become an international bestseller. In the US, it placed in the top five paperback best-sellers for 1966—with a whopping ten printings in the first six months. While they were not contractually obligated to do so, Ace Books never paid Whittington anything beyond the initial work for hire payment of $1,500.
 
 
 
While other writers raced through work for hire novelizations or TV tie-in books, often doing no more than one sloppy draft to get the quick paycheck, Whittington never phoned in his work. As a result, his novelizations are always worth reading.
 
Case in point, Whittington's novelization of the Elvis Presley movie Charro! is among his best work in the Western genre. 
 
To take timely advantage of a movie’s initial release, many novelizations are written based only on a brief script outline known as a treatment. As a novelization’s author is rarely privy to the full elements of characterization, mood, and tone of a finished film, a novelization can be substantially different. The best novelization writers rely on their own imagination to flesh out motivations, plot points, and even create new characters in order to produce a coherent story. In the hands of a top pro like Whittington, the novelization can become a special entity all its own—as with Charro!
 
Charro! is an excellent novel based on a bad film. Whittington developed his story from a film treatment entitled Come Hell, Come Sundown by Frederick Louis Fox. The title for the film was later changed to Charro!—An odd choice since charro is a term applied to Mexican horseman, particularly those who participate in rodeos. As the character of Charro (portrayed in the movie by Elvis) is neither Mexican nor a horseman, and there is nary a rodeo in sight, it is nothing more than a cool moniker. 
 
Fox’s original treatment, Come Hell, Come Sundown, contained many violent and sexually related scenes. The director of the movie deemed these too objectionable and excised them from the final script. Whittington didn’t have any such proclivities, putting all the sex and violence back in when he wrote the novelization, making his book much better than the film on which it is based. 
 
The conflict at the heart of Charro! revolves around a gold-plated Mexican cannon belonging to Emperor Maximilian, which has been stolen by an outlaw band. The Mexican army, various Mexican thugs, and bounty hunter Jess Wade are after the $2,000 reward for the return of the cannon. As the story progresses, the outlaws want to ransom the cannon back to the town from where it was stolen. By this time they have trapped Wade into working with them as they use the cannon to terrorize the town into capitulation. Tension and violence soak Whittington’s take on the story, written with the lean muscular prose for which he was renown. 
 
CHARRO!—ELVIS
 
The lead role in the movie Charro! was supposed to be filled by Clint Eastwood, which will make perfect sense a paragraph or two from now. When Eastwood wisely made himself unavailable, Elvis—a fan of Westerns—jumped into the fire having only seen the same film treatment—filled with sex and violence—as Whittington used as the basis for his novelization. Elvis believed this was his big chance to break away from popcorn musicals and show his acting chops. 
 
Money was paid to the Colonel (Elvis' notorious manager) for Elvis’ services—allegedly $850,000, which was more than half the film’s budget. Contracts were signed. And then Elvis was handed the shooting script, which was a weak shadow of the treatment on which he had based his agreement to participate...Unhappiness ensued, but by then, Elvis was legally obligated to fulfill the role.
 
On the positive side, it would still be a movie where he wouldn’t have to break into a hit-bound ditty at the drop of a guitar. He would however record the theme (Charro) to be played over the credits, and one other song (Memories), which was not used in the film.

He grew a scrubby beard for the movie, but felt so self-conscious, everyone on the set (including Colonel Tom Parker his ownself) grew beards to support him. 
 
The film was a modest hit, but not well received by Elvis’ legions of fans, who didn’t want to see him in movies where he didn’t croon half-a-dozen songs on screen. Perhaps if Charro! had been written to resurrect the Gene Autry/Tex Ritter singing cowboy genre, it would have fit Elvis’ image better.
 
 CHARRO!—THE MOVIE
 
As a film Charro! is a mess—a meta mash-up of tail chasing styles. Originally, it was green lighted for production on the understanding it was to be Hollywood’s stylized spin on the mega-popular Spaghetti Westerns of Sergio Leone and the Euro Westerns of other Italian and Spanish directors. This was the meta tail chasing part, since Spaghetti and Euro Westerns were already foreign spins on the original Hollywood oaters.
 
Based on his laconic Spaghetti Western stardom in films like The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly, it’s easy to see why Clint Eastwood would have been conceived as perfect for the lead role. Whatever his reasons for passing on the movie, Eastwood’s choice was far better for his career than trying to stop this trainwreck by his presence alone.
 
The effort to capture the lightening of a standard Hollywood oater, seen through the six-gun kaleidoscope of European-style gratuitous sex and violence on horseback in foreign locations posing as the wild west, then translating it all back into a new Hollywood Western only stylized like a foreign version of a Hollywood Western, but with all the gratuitous sex and violence removed, proved too much for director Charles Marquis Warren.
 
Better known for his television work on Gunsmoke and other early TV series westerns, Warren struggled when trying to direct for the big screen western. The idea of what Charro! was intended to be was clearly too much for him to grasp, and Warren retreated behind the safety of his television experience. It would be the final outing of his undistinguished career as a movie director.
 
Take the run on sentence from a couple of paragraphs above, describing the intent of the film and associated challenges, then dump it into a bucket of made-for-TV movie molasses, and you have Charro!—a zebrapottomus crossed with a lamaphant raised by a pig-in-a-poke. Can you say schizophrenic hybrid disaster? I knew you could... 
 
CHARRO!—THE COVER
 
Now your brain hurts, it’s time to return circuitously to the subject of novelizations, specifically the cover for the paperback novelization of Charro! 
 
Charro! isn’t only an outstanding novel. The Gold Medal first edition paperback has an awesome cover by Ron Lesser. Known for his iconic posters for Clint Eastwood films, Lesser illustrated covers for hundreds of paperback westerns, mass market softcovers, and movie posters. What makes this particular cover exceptional is the addition of the illustrated dancehall girl on the holster. The first time I saw the cover, I thought the dancehall girl was an aftermarket doodle. But it is an example of Lesser’s gift of artistic genius—He gleaned the detail of the dancehall girl on the holster from the novel, then added it as a unique touch. 
 
Interestingly, the cover blurb calls the book a novel, not a novelization—a subtle, but deceptive difference. Only Whittington’s name appears on front cover, perpetuating the deception of a novel. On the title page, small print indicates the book is based on a story by Frederick Louis Fox. This type of treatment was very unusual for a novelization—presenting it as if the movie was based on the book instead of the other way around. 
 
There is also another related oddity…Charro! is the novelization of an Elvis Presley movie. This should have been considered a huge marketing coup. But if so, why is there no tie-in photo of Elvis in his role as Charro on the cover? Why is there no mention of it being an Elvis movie—not even on the back cover? Inquiring minds want to know.
 
Perhaps there were contractual issues at the time regarding the use of Elvis’ image. Maybe there was a dispute between the publisher and the movie studio over the novelization. Or possibly the book was so much better than the final shooting script, it became an embarrassment to the director/screenwriter of the movie. 
 
There is also a chance the situation ensued because Whittington put the original sex and violence from the treatment back into the novelization. This, as stated, didn’t mesh with the director’s puritanical standards, which had originally caused the sex an violence to be removed from the treatment.
 
Whatever the reason, Charro! is a less than inspired movie. It is, however, an inspired example of a genre Western, a novelization, Harry Whittington’s writing chops, and the type of cover painting I’d love to have hanging on my wall.
 
This rabbit hole still has several off-shoots, but they are best left unexplored. There are plenty of other rabbit holes waiting for me to fall down.