"Death on the Cheap" by Arthur Lyons

Review by Kevin Burton Smith

"Hell, we didn't know what film noir was in those days. We were just making movies. Cary Grant and all the big stars at RKO got all the lights. We lit our sets with cigarette butts."

-- Robert Mitchum in conversation with Arthur Lyons,
from the introduction

Anyone who's frequented this site over the years ought to know who Arthur Lyons was. He created one of the most memorable private eyes of the seventies and eighties, the Palm Springs gumshoe Jacob Asch, a splendid update in the Chandler vein; tough, cynical and wry, with a detective's eye for detail and the newspaperman's thirst for "the big story."

But Lyons was more than that. He wasn't just a starred contributor to the hard-boiled and noir gene pool -- he was a fan, too. A huge fan. Particularly of film.

And he didn't just love the certified slam dunk classics of crime and film noir that any buff worth his salt can spew out the way an aging preacher can spew out a sermon without even thinking. No, Lyons, by his own admission, had a real taste for the outliers, the stuff that slipped through the cracks, ignored by critics, often because "they were simply bad." In other words, B films.

He not only loved the stuff -- he was a co-founder of the ongoing Palm Springs Festival of Film Noir (subsequently known as "The Arthur Lyons Film Noir Festival") , where he put his money where his mouth was, exposing his guilty pleasures for all to see.

"I must confess without any embarrasment to being subject to no such (critical) snobbery, being not only an avid fan of film noir but also a great fan of B films. In fact, my snobbery probably works in reverse. It is hard to imagine how anyone could spend $50 million (this was in 2000) on the making of an A movie and have it come out bad, although many filmmakers have done just that. It is much more interesting -- at least to me -- to see what moviemakers could put together for less than $100,000 and how really good some of it is."

And so, in 2000 -- the same year he co-founded the film festival -- he delivered this wonderful volume, whose sub-title, "The Lost B Movies of Film Noir," says it all.

It's about as obvious a labour of love as you can get, as Lyons clued us in on some of his favourite but woefully-neglected noir B films of the 1940s and 1950s.

Dean Koontz says on the cover blurb, "A terrific piece of work, the definitive book on its subject, and a body slam of nostalgia that knocked me out of my chair more than once," and that about sums it up.

There's gold in them thar pages, and plenty of fools' gold, too, though not quite as much as you'd think. The book kicks off with a foreward by fellow crime scribe Gerald Petiech, but then Lyons grabs you by the lapel and drags you down the poorly lit alley of broad-shouldered dicks, gimlet-eyed bar girls and an assortment of chiselers, thugs, palookas, crooked cops and cold-blooded killers, any one of whom could tell you there's no way out.

But you're not listening...

Lyons leads you on, offering several short essays, tracing the history of noir, the rise and fall of the B film and whispering in your ear a fascinating chapter on the hapless would-be cineastes of Hollywood's Poverty Row, which churned out many -- if not most -- of the films mentioned in this book.

And then, when you're feeling all comfy and scholarly, Lyons hits you with a sap, laying on a A-Z litany of lost treasures that'll have your head swimming. You'll be seeing stars and would-be stars, films that coulda been contenders and crime films whose very existence was a crime. And plenty of WTF? films you've never heard of.

Like, come on, really. Riff Raff?

But after reading Lyons' take on this long-lost nugget of noir, I want to see it! NOW!

Each flick is accompanied by complete cast and production notes, a synopsis and best of all, Lyons' incisive commentary (and smart ass asides that would do his fictional gumshoe proud) and more trivia than you can shake a box of popcorn art.

There are several black and white movie stills and a few reproductions of posters, a now sadly outdated list of video sources (remember VHS?), several appendixes, footnotes and a full index, but the real deal here is Lyons' voice, witty, joyful and perceptive; a valentine to guilty pleasures and lost treasures; a must-have for any fan of cinematic cheap thrills.

It's a bummer that some of these films may be gone for good, but the advent of digital and streaming gives me hope.

And by the way, speaking of lost Bs and guilty pleasures, when is Slow Burn, Lyons' own B skeleton in the closet? This 1986 made-for-TV flick starred one-time golden boy Eric Roberts as Lyons' Asch and co-starred Beverly D'Angelo, Edward Bunker, Henry Gibson, Dan Hedaya and an impossibly young Johnny Depp, is rarely seen these days, and has never been released on DVD...

P.I. FILMS MENTIONED IN DEATH ON THE CHEAP

Although Lyons was known primarily as a private eye writer, this book does not deal exclusively with P.I. films. But naturally more than a few did worm their way into ther list, including:

Death on the Cheap: The Lost B Movies of Film Noir....Buy this book
By Arthur Lyons
Da Capo Press, copyright 2000.

Respectfully submitted by Kevin Burton Smith.


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