January 28, 2007

Warlock’s Curse

We all get songs stuck in our heads every once in awhile. Usually really annoying ones, too. Something by the Bee Gees or Spandau Ballet. But I also occasionally suffer from an irksome brain glitch that seems to be a corollary to that.

     I’ll be standing on a subway platform, or walking down the sidewalk, or lying in my bed in the middle of the night, when I’ll suddenly find myself with half a line from a song, or a snippet of dialogue from a film or television show, or even a brief scene from a movie stuck in my head. Unlike those annoying songs, though, these I can’t identify, I don’t know where they’re from. I know they come from something, but I don’t know what.

     And also unlike those songs, which (I’ve found anyway) can usually be cast out by actually hearing the song in question, these phrases or scenes will stay with me, gnaw at me, until I’m finally able to identify them. Drives me nuts. I can’t concentrate on anything else. It’s a huge and terrible psychic drain.

     Here’s an example. A few years ago I was waiting for the subway on my way to work one morning when the following phrase, for whatever reason, suddenly appeared in my head:

     “ . . . destroy the young people of today.”

     I knew it was something, and I knew it was spoken in a shrill, nasal Southern accent. But that’s all I knew. So I began rolling the phrase around, hoping to knock something else out of it—sometimes if you get another word or two, it’ll solve the whole thing.

     The train came, I got on, I went to the office. But still, an hour later, all I could think was “ . . . destroy the young people of today.”

     It wasn’t until the next morning (after a completely wasted day), when it came to me while standing on that same subway platform:

     “What tools do you think Satan will use to destroy the young people of today?”

     It was Rev. Gary—a fundamentalist youth minister from the early 1980s. That clip, taken from Rev. Gary’s cautionary sermon about the dangers of punk rock, opened Suburban Mutilation’s first album. I hadn’t heard that album in ten years, so lord knows why that phrase was still buried someplace in my head, but I can’t tell you what a relief it was to finally identify it.

     Most of them don’t take that long to place. The phrase “ . . . and factories as well” only took an hour or two. But it was an hour or two in the middle of a sleepless night, which made it seem all that much worse.

     The next morning (having already identified it, thank God), I bounced it off Morgan just for fun. She of course knew immediately that it was from The Tiger Lillies’ “Start a Fire,” the smarty-pants.

     In some cases, however, things aren’t quite that simple. Sometimes my only hope is a happy coincidence.

     When I was a kid, I remember seeing a low-budget science fiction movie on the television one Saturday afternoon. I remembered nothing about the film except for one brief scene: An alien wearing a round helmet with an antenna on the top had suddenly appeared on television screens all over the world. He made some dire announcement about his plans for the Earth. Then he laughed a staccato, emotionless laugh—heh-heh-heh-heh-heh-heh-heh—that went on way too long.

     That was all I remembered.

     At some point in my late thirties, this scene popped into my head again. At first I figured it was from Mars Needs Women, but I was sorely mistaken. Having dismissed that, I had no idea where to go. I had hundreds of other science fiction films around the apartment, but was pretty sure it wasn’t any of them. I was stymied. It’s not like I could go online and do a search for :”alien who laughs way too long.” (Or maybe I could—I never tried.)

     I pretty much gave up. The scene was still in my head, but over time it no longer had the hold o me it originally did.

     Then last year I received a DVD in the mail of a low-budget Japanese Flash Gordon knock-off called Prince of Space! (The title, by the way, must always be yelled dramatically).

     Thinking nothing of it, I popped it into the DVD player one evening and, not five minutes into the film, there was that alien, and there was that laugh.

     Sometimes that’s the only way to dispel these things. At other times, however, it takes a combination of coincidence, luck, persistence and knowing the right person to ask.

     There was this other scene, see? Again, I’d seen the movie only once on television when I was young, and much later in life—for reasons I cannot figure—this scene came back to me:

     Henry Fonda wearing a black cowboy hat sitting in a saloon. A young man comes through the swinging doors behind him and challenges him to a gunfight. Fonda shoots him without even turning around.

     Sounds simple, right? Henry Fonda only played a bad guy in one Western—Once Upon a Time in the West—so that had to be it.

     Bullshit! I sat down and re-watched the film, and the scene was nowhere to be found.

     Now, Westerns were never my favorite genre, so in the days that followed I started doing some research (when I should’ve probably been doing some, you know, real work). It turns out Henry Fonda played more evil (or at least misunderstood) gunslingers than most people realize.

     One likely candidate was They Call Me Nobody, from the Trinity series. Fonda played an aging outlaw dressed in black. I picked up a copy, watched it, found nothing.

     I was getting frustrated. More frustrated, maybe, than I should—but like I said, these things stick with me and get in the way. So I sent a note to my friend Linda. Linda knows her classic American Westerns better than anybody. If anyone knew, she would.

     I described the scene to her in as much detail as I could, but she had no idea either. She suggested that maybe I was misrembering it. I recalled the scene in color, but it might’ve been black and white. I remembered Henry Fonda, but it might’ve been Jimmy Stewart. The possibilities were endless—after all, it was something I’d seen when I was eleven or twelve, for godsakes.

     So she set about her own research, but came up with nothing either.

     Again, as in the days before Prince of Space! arrived, the obsession began to fade. There were even some days when that scene didn’t occur to me at all.

     Then one day last week I was on that internet, tracking down a complete filmography of the great Whit Bissell—some 200 films, all told—and somewhere in the midst of it all I came across a reference to a movie he was in called Warlock. It was from a period when every American film being made was a Western, so I assumed it was a Western, too. And if it was indeed a Western, I wondered if maybe it was a film version of the Oakley Hall novel of the same name.

     I’m no fan of Western literature, either, for the most part, but Hall’s novel does have a prominent place on my shelf—it’s a sprawling, surreal, complex novel, a sort of modernist Western that I’ve always loved. I had no idea they’d made a movie out of it (and, to be honest, wasn’t sure how that could be done).

     So I started looking into this Warlock film. Sure enough, it was based on the novel. What’s more, it starred not only the great Whit Bissell, but Anthony Quinn, Richard Widmark—and Henry Fonda.

     I didn’t really think much of that at first, until I started reading some plot synopses, and saw that Henry Fonda played an aging ornery gunfighter. That’s when I started thinking “hmmmm...

     So I shot off another note to Linda. She’d never seen it, but assured me she would.

     And sure enough, a week later the confirmation arrived—this was it. This was the film I’d been looking for, the one which had been haunting me for some stupid reason. I could finally set another obsession aside.

     Yes, well. When not much else is going on, I guess the brain will come up with it’s own form of entertainment and torture.


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