Monday, May 8, 2017

Framed


Framed, by Art Powers and Mike Misenheimer
May, 1974  Pinnacle Books

In addition to their men’s adventure series, Pinnacle also published a lot of standalone crime-thriller paperback originals, usually labelled, like this one, as “adventure” on the spine. Unfortunately a lot of these titles are obscure and/or scarce these days, which is a pity in the case of Framed, as it’s a helluva ‘70s crime novel – and brutal, too, with grisly carnage like eyeballs popping out, point-blank blasts to the face by Magnum revolvers, maulings by killer guard dogs, and torture via spark plugs. Hell, it’s even got a fairly explicit sex scene, so what more could you ask for. 

I’d never heard of the book – and when researching it was surprised to find there was even a film adaptation, released the following year and starring Joe Don Baker, more of which below. But as for the novel itself, I was able to find out that authors Art Powers and Mike Misenheimer were ex-convicts, of the Ohio State Peninteniary, and had actually published a nonfiction book about their experiences there a few years before. It appears that Framed was their sole novel, released in only this paperback edition and promptly forgotten (other than the film, that is). It’s a shame, as these two prove themselves to be very talented authors.

Framed is written in first-person, narrated by an ex-con named Ron Lewis (mistakenly referred to as “Tom Lewis” on the back cover). Seven years ago Ron was sent to Ohio State Pen for murdering a sheriff’s deputy in Steubenville, Ohio, but it was a frame; Ron killed the man in self-defense, as the deputy had been sent to murder Ron for something Ron saw but shouldn’t have. Ron came out the victor of the fight, but the people behind it all were able to send him to prison on trumped-up charges. Now Ron has served his time and has returned to Steubenville to bust those fuckers up.

Like the best crime fiction, Framed is lean and mean and doesn’t waste time with inessentials. Like for example Ron himself. We’re given no real background on him, what he does for a living, where he’s from, etc. All we learn is that he served for two years in Korea, after which he tried college but dropped out after a semester. He then ended up in Steubenville, shortly after which he ran into the trouble which sent him to prison for seven years. And now he has returned, apparently in the present (ie 1974).

Despite their solid writing skills, not to mention their gift with a melancholy vibe, the authors appear to lack math skills. As mentioned Ron served in the Korean War, which ended in 1953. When checking in with the sheriff’s office upon his return to Steubenville after getting out of prison, Ron gives his age as 31. This would imply the novel is set in the mid 1960s at the latest. And yet the book is clearly set in the early ‘70s, with references to Twiggy, Jimi Hendrix, the 1968 Ohio Pen reforms, and even the Beatles song “Something,” which alone places the novel after 1969. But who knows, maybe like Don Pendleton Ron lied about his age so he could serve in Korea. Or maybe he lied to the sheriff’s office.

What happened seven years ago is capably dispensed in bits and pieces without stalling forward momentum. Framed occurs in almost a postmodern format, with Ron making his return, figuring out who was behind the frame, and plotting his revenge; this takes precedence over the backstory of what happened that night seven years ago. For that matter Ron’s time in prison is also only sporadically referred to, with only one (kind of jarring) part where he goes into an extended flashback about his time there. That being said, it made total sense when I learned the authors themselves were ex-cons, as former prisoner Ron marvels over things that would be ignored by the average person, like the simple act of putting a key into a locked door and letting himself in. It’s little touches like this that elevates Framed beyond your basic (but bloody) revenge tale.

The novel opens with Ron getting off the bus that has returned him to Steubenville. He’s met at the depot by Susan, aka “Susan Cool,” a hotstuff nightclub singer Ron was involved with seven years ago. She takes him back to her place where she “balls [him] out of compassion,” though the authors leave this one fade to black; a later sex scene between the two is more in-depth, with Ron’s statements that his “tumescence was complete,” and Susan “grasping [his] extended manhood.” But after the “balling” Susan tells Ron he should leave town; the people behind his frame are still around and don’t want him here.

A funny (but I don’t think it was intended as such) element in Framed is Ron’s (and thus the authors’s as well?) sentiments toward women in general and Susan in particular. Simply put, she’s there to have sex with him and make his meals. While the former is implicit the latter is, uh, plicit (I stole that from somewhere but can’t remember where). Ron often tells us that Susan’s main chore is to make his meals, and there are many scenes where he sends her off to the kitchen to whip up food while the men talk. Anytime she gives him backtalk Ron simply ignores her, and he usually evades her questions. Indeed Ron treats Susan with such casual misogyny that Bill Cartwright of Operation Hang Ten could take a few pointers from him – high (or low?) praise indeed.

What happened was that seven years ago Ron decided to go out driving late one night. Passing by a field, he was shot at by some unseen assailant. Returning home, Ron was jumped in his garage by a burly sheriff’s deputy, one with a reputation for sadism and brutality. Ron, realizing he was about to be taken away to be killed, not arrested, engaged the dude in mortal combat. This fight, friends, is to Gannon levels of brutality. These two beat each other to burger, with Ron biting out a “chunk” of the deputy’s neck and finally ripping out his eyeball, which he shows to the dying deputy before throwing it in his face! (“He was strangling on his own blood and his own eyeball.”)

Ron is sent away for murdering an officer of the law, and his story of innocence is ignored. Now he uses Susan to figure out what’s happened since he was gone. For one, the sheriff at the time, a beefy dude named Morello, has become mayor. The new sheriff was a deputy back then but doesn’t seem to know anything about what happened. There’s also a new deputy who was cousins with the man Ron killed and who periodically threatens our narrator, usually getting his ass kicked – Ron himself, by the way, is a musclebound hulk. There’s also a black cop on the Steubenville force named Sam, who gradually assists Ron; Sam is aware of the corruption in town and knows Ron was framed.

Also assisting Ron is Vince, his old cellmate, a professional thief/Mafia hitman who ironically enough has been sent to Steubenville on a hit assignment, only to realize his target was none other than his old cellmate. Instead Vince gives Ron a warning and also loans him a .38. He suggests Ron call up another old prisoner pal, Sal Viccarone, a Mafia don who still wields power despite being behind bars. A simple call to a number Sal provided gets the underworld heat off Ron, but there’s still the question of who put the hit out on him in the first place.

More assassins follow, including a pair of hitmen who show up outside Susan’s home one night; Sam takes them out, now fully helping Ron. Our hero doesn’t just sit around; in the field that night years ago he spotted a yellow sports car, and tracking down leads finds that it was owned by the hippie son of current Ohio senator Polanski. The punk now lives with a bunch of hippies in Cleveland, serving as their lawyer; the authors bring to life the squalor of a hippie pad as Ron questions young Polanksi and learns that his dad had sold the yellow car long before the night of the shooting.

Ron’s now certain Senator Polanksi was behind the frame; he gets further confirmation when three killers get the jump on him outside of Susan’s place; Susan meanwhile has revealed that she was raped seven years ago, threatened to keep her mouth shut about Ron’s innocence…and conveniently one of the guys waiting for Ron now is the dude who raped her. We get another bit of Gannon-esque ultraviolence as Ron wrecks the car they’re in into a train and then beats the guy in the tail car to burger, even ripping apart his nostrils with his bare hands – and of course it’s the guy who raped Susan. Ron then proceeds to shoot off his ear and torture him for info with a skinned spark plug. The scene climaxes with a .357 Magnum blast to the sonofabitch’s face. As I say, the novel is wonderfully hardcore.

But Polanski senior also turns out to be innocent, or at least mostly so. Cornering the senator, Ron gets the full story. That night seven years ago Senator Polanski had just killed the man who was selling drugs to his son in that field. When Ron happened to drive by, the senator flipped and thought it was an accomplice. After firing at Ron’s car, Polanski blabbed to Sheriff Morello, who promised to square things away. Ron was framed, and in exchange for keeping Polanski’s name clean, Morello was able to exert his influence over the senator in various underhanded pursuits, not to mention gaining his help in becoming mayor of Steubenville.

This takes us into the climax, where Ron and Vince break out the revolvers and infiltrate Morello’s heavily-guarded home, a sequence which has Ron punching a killer guard dog to death. While this finale doesn’t have the explosive action I was hoping for, it does at least have a satisfactory end, with various reversals and reveals, as well as a quick firefight. Also it features the above-mentioned dog mauling, which sees the unfortunate victim’s face chomped and ripped to bloody ribbons.

Framed even features that other mainstay of ‘70s crime fiction: the downer ending. Not in the “everyone dies” fashion, but more so in an ironic sort of defeatism. The last chapter jumps into third-person and tells us of a man killing off a few cops who are guarding someone in protective custody, someone who is serving as a witness against the mob. The assassin then drowns the witness himself in the ocean. While he is never named, it is implied that the assassin is Ron, who post-vengeance has taken a job with old prison pal Sal Viccarone, who at novel’s end offered him a job in the Syndicate. The irony being that Ron has spent the novel fighting hitmen who blindly followed orders, killing without care, and now he himself has become one of them.

All told, Framed is damn great. There’s a level of introspection that is skillfully worked into the narrative, never slowing it down, just enough to give it an extra dramatic boost. It also has an assortment of memorable characters, and the brutal violence goes beyond some of the men’s adventure novels of the era. About the only misstep is the cover, which is cool enough, but I figure is recycled from something else, as it has nothing to do with the novel. That sunglasses-wearing dude in the snazzy suit sure isn’t Ron Lewis, and the array of profiles behind him doesn’t bear much relation to the characters in the book – I mean, the guy in the hat at the center appears to be Chinese or something, and there isn’t a single Asian in Framed.

As for the film, Framed came out in 1975, but it’s copyright ‘74; Powers’s and Misenheimer’s novel is credited, but they did not write the script. The movie is much inferior to the novel. Joe Don Baker stars as Ron, and admittedly I didn’t picture Baker as the protagonist when reading the novel, but then I can’t think of a single novel in which I ever have. (I still think he made for the best onscreen Felix Leiter though – I mean, at least Baker’s from Texas!). Ron is more fleshed out in the movie, though I feel this detracts from his cipher-like nature in the novel. “I’m a gambler,” he helpfully exposits in the first few moments of the film, and he’s more of a bumbling redneck than the stone cold badass of the book.

The movie drops the template of the novel and follows a linear format, with Ron’s framing and prison service playing out in real time. The manner of Ron’s frame is also changed; in addition to the “wrong place, wrong time” setup of the book, here he’s intentionally framed due to his gambling winnings, which are taken by the corrupt sheriff. The action is also changed from Ohio to Tennessee, making the film part of the slew of “redneck revenge” exploitation yarns that were popular at the time.

The producers maintain the violent setpieces of the novel as closely as they can while still making it a mainstream picture; Ron’s brawl with the deputy is bloody, but no eyeballs pop out, and while Ron still shoots off the rapists’s ear he doesn’t blow off his face as in the novel. The action is the most memorable part of the film, in particular the film’s recreation of the scene in which Ron wrecks his car into a train – a stuntman is almost incenerated as he rolls away from the exploding car. All in a day’s work!

Finally, the flick skips the downer, ironic ending and gives us a veritable Happily Ever After, as Ron, his vengeance sated and his money returned, makes off with Susan – who herself has been changed in the film; gone is “Susan Cool,” replaced by a shrill harpy who grates the nerves. All told, the film adaptation of Framed is passable hicksploitation, but doesn’t come close to matching the brutal impact of the novel.

1 comment:

Marty McKee said...

I think it may be Carey Loftin doing that fiery car/train stunt, and I would be willing to bet it did not go off exactly as planned. Which makes it more exciting for us! I hope Loftin got a nice bonus.