Reviewed by JONATHAN LEWIS:         


ED McBAIN – The Gutter and the Grave. Hard Case Crime #15, paperback, December 2005. First published as I’m Cannon — for Hire, as by Curt Cannon (Gold Medal #814, 1958), with the leading character also named Curt Cannon.

   Ed McBain’s The Gutter and the Grave is a quick, entertaining read and quite good, if not overly complicated, murder mystery. It’s also a time capsule of sorts, an enchanting mirror looking backward to late 1950s Manhattan, an age when jazz was king, the Bowery was for bums, and there were down and out and hard drinking private eyes like the book’s protagonist, one washed out thirty-something, Matt Cordell.

   Cordell, as the narrator of the work, lets us know early on who he is and what he is. “I’m a drunk. I think we’d better get that straight from the beginning.” (Page 13.) Our “hero” spends his days hanging out around Cooper Union in lower Manhattan. Then one day, a friend—of sorts—from the old neighborhood uptown — way uptown — shows up and wants an investigative favor.

   Enter Johnny Bridges who wants Cordell to look into some fishy goings on in the tailor shop he runs with a guy named Dom Archese. Maybe Dom’s fishing from the cash register late at night.

   All fine and good, until the duo head uptown only to find Dom Archese dead. Worse still, at least for Bridges, are the initials “JB” scrawled in chalk. Bridges, to no one’s surprise, becomes the chief suspect and ends up in police custody. It’s now up to Cordell to figure out what’s going on and to exonerate his so-called friend, if possible.

   Along the way, Cordell meets up with Dom’s wife, Christine (who also ends up dead), Christine’s sister, who is an aspiring musician by the name of Laraine Marsh, a Manhattan cop named Miskler, and sundry other colorful characters including a rival PI and his sultry employee. All the while, Cordell is reminded of his ex-wife, Toni, his one true love who ended up in the arms of another man.

   Cordell’s world is not a happy one, but it’s an extraordinarily vivid one. At least that’s how Ed McBain paints it. And what a painting! Reading The Gutter and the Grave transports you to a specific time and a specific place. It’s sometime in the late 1950s and Manhattan’s a crowded, hot city in the summer. The murder and the lies all around Cordell only make it hotter. Recommended.

       The Matt Cordell/Curt Cannon short stories (as by Evan Hunter) –

“Die Hard” (January 1953, Manhunt)
“Dead Men Don’t Dream (March 1953, Manhunt)
“Now Die in It” (May 1953, Manhuntt)
“Good and Dead” (July 1953, Manhunt)
“The Death of Me” (September 1953, Manhunt)
“Deadlier Than the Male” (February 1954, Manhunt)
“Return” (July 1954, Manhunt)
“The Beatings” (October 1954, Manhunt)

   The first six of the above were collected in I Like ’em Tough, as by Curt Cannon (Gold Medal #743, 1958).

REVIEWED BY DAN STUMPF:         


CURSE OF THE UNDEAD. Universal International, 1959. Starring Eric Fleming, Michael Pate, Kathleen Crowley, Bruce Gordon. Written & directed by Edward Dein.

   What could have been a campy disaster emerges as an off-beat effort with some memorable moments. Not a complete success, but much better than you’d expect from a Vampire Western.

   Things start quickly, with writer/director Dein showing off a fine sense of pace as a young lady dies mysteriously with (you guessed it) bite-marks on her neck — an escaping demon suggested by a shade flapping violently in the bedroom window, in a neat bit of understatement.

   From here we move on to some typical Western range-war dramatics, but no range itself, as if the budget couldn’t be stretched to include any wide open spaces. Or maybe Dein just wanted to keep things creepy and claustrophobic in this town-bound gothic.

   Whatever the case, the stock characters hang around saloon and offices going through their usual paces, with the Big Rancher pushing on the smaller ones, the Sheriff standing tough in the middle, the hot-head edging towards a showdown, and pious Preacher Dan (Eric Fleming) trying to keep everyone above ground and unperforated while casting eyes on the local Rancher’s Daughter (Kathleen Crowley.)

   (PARENTHETICAL NOTE: A critic once pointed out that B westerns are rife with ranchers and ranchers’ daughters, but a positive dearth of ranch moms — either life on the prairie was hard on a woman, or else it was just too much bother and expense to hire another actress.)

   Things don’t have time to get dull before the mysterious stranger we’ve been expecting all along shows up in a memorable moment, rearing his horse in the moonlight in spooky slow motion. And it’s not long after that till he makes himself known to the locals as a sinister gun-for-hire in a scary shoot-out, which is one of those scenes I said you’d remember.

   The ghoulish gunman is played very ably by Michael Pate, an Aussie with a lean-and-thirsty look typed as a bad guy in Hollywood but capable of much broader range. In Curse he comes off as equal parts Cowboy and Creep: lean, graceful, and suggesting a certain complexity of character ably conveyed in a script that paints him more love-lorn than blood-thirsty but nonetheless deadly.

   Curse proceeds to ride a tricky trail between the conventions of the horror film and the clichés of the B-western. There’s a bit too much talk at times, but things finish off with a nifty round-up combining the best of both genres: When Preacher and Demon face each other on a dusty street, we pretty much know what’s going to happen — but how it happens, is immensely satisfying for fans of monsters and cowboys.

Reviewed by JONATHAN LEWIS:         


THE GUNFIGHT AT DODGE CITY. United Artists, 1959. Joel McCrea (Bat Masterson), Julie Adams, John McIntire, Nancy Gates, Richard Anderson, James Westerfield, Walter Coy, Don Haggerty.

   I really wanted to like The Gunfight at Dodge City much more than I did. I’m generally an admirer of Joel McCrea and I find it difficult not to like the lovely Julie Adams. I also quite enjoyed the Jacques Tourneur-directed Wichita starring McCrea as Wyatt Earp, which I reviewed here and believe to be a Western deserving of more critical attention.

   Yet despite McCrea’s adequate portrayal of Bat Masterson, Joseph M. Newman’s solid direction, and some beautifully decorated interiors, The Gunfight at Dodge City ended up feeling like a disappointment, a case of what could have been rather than what it is.

   McCrea, in a stoic role, portrays legendary lawman Bat Masterson as he transforms himself from a buffalo hunter to the lawman of Dodge City, Kansas. Along the way, however, Masterson makes two mortal enemies, Dave Rudabaugh (Richard Anderson) who seeks revenge for his brother’s death at the hands of Masterson, and Dodge City’s corrupt sheriff, Jim Regan (Don Haggerty). Both are villains without any depth.

   Masterson also finds himself torn between two beautiful women, Lily (Nancy Gates), a saloon owner and Pauline Howard (Julia Adams), a preacher’s daughter engaged to Bat’s brother, Ed (Harry Lauter) who ends up being killed by the aforementioned Dave (Anderson).

   Masterson also plays mentor to a mentally challenged kid, Billy, who has, to Bat’s mind, an unhealthy fascination with guns and violence. What does help make Masterson’s character a bit more interesting are his friendships with Doc Sam Tremaine (John McIntire) and Reverend Howard (James Westerfield).

   As you might suspect, Billy gets himself into a pickle by shooting a lawman and is sentenced to death by hanging. This forces Masterson’s hand. Will he uphold the law or will he revert to his semi- outlaw ways and free the lad from state custody?

   If all of this happens to sound like fairly standard Western fare, you’re absolutely correct. That’s what The Gunfight at Dodge City is. There’s a couple of fights, some drunken cowboys shooting in the twilight, a couple of love affairs, brothers with different personalities, a saloon, and a protagonist who kills his rivals and gets the girl. But it’s just not much more than that.

   True, there are a couple of great moments, but there’s really not too much in the way of memorable dialogue or excellent acting. McCrea is a very capable actor, but in this one, he just seems at times like he was phoning it in. Bat Masterson looks more bored than tormented. And everyone else was playing their roles better than many actors could have, but it still leaves one with a nagging question: aside from making a movie with Bat Masterson at the center of the action, what was it all for?

THE ARMCHAIR REVIEWER
Allen J. Hubin


JAMES MITCHELL – Dying Day. Henry Holt, hardcover, 1989. First published in the UK by H. Hamilton, hardcover, 1988.

   James Mitchell has done a number of crime novels, as himself and as James Munro, and now turns up with a London private eye named Ron Hogget. Hogget finds things for people, though the finding usually involves some fearful activities.

   Ron is often fearful — he’s that sort of person — but he usually gets the job done. And he has Dave, a friend who drives a cab, reads Literature, knows everything about guns and self-defense and nothing about fear.

   Hogget’s second adventure is Dying Day. [But see below.] Here Tony Palliser, filthy rich now from business that began with airplanes — Dakotas — participating in the Berlin airlift in 1948, calls on Hogget’s services. It’s one of those planes, lost at that time, that Palliser now wants Ron to find.

   Why, after all these years? Palliser’s reason is thin, but his money is good so Ron starts. And finds he’s not alone on the search, that the real reason must be quite impressive for all the dying being arranged on its behalf. Including, very likely, his…

   A solidly constructed, high-tension story with a well-crafted array of characters.

— Reprinted from The MYSTERY FANcier,
       Vol. 11, No. 3, Summer 1989.

      The Ron Hogget series —

Sometimes You Could Die. H. Hamilton, 1985. No US edition.
Dead Ernest. H. Hamilton, 1986. Holt, 1987.
Dying Day. H. Hamilton, 1988. Holt, 1989.

Reviewed by DAVID VINEYARD:         


THIS IS MY AFFAIR. 20th Century Fox, 1937. Robert Taylor, Barbara Stanwyck, Victor McLaglen, Brian Donlevy, Sidney Blackmer, John Carradine, Douglas Fowley, Robert McWade, Frank Conroy, Alan Dinehart, Douglas Wood, Sig Ruman. Screenplay: Lamar Trotti, Allen Rivkin (uncredited: Kube Glasmon, Wallace Sullivan, and Darrel F. Zannuck). Directed by William A. Seiter.

   This film is a nostalgic romantic musical set at the turn of the nineteenth century with a pair of real life lovers in obvious love with each other — no, it’s a tough crime tale about a super gang of bank robbers threatening the safety of the nation’s economy — no, its about a tough young undercover operative who falls in love with the showgirl sister of one of the criminals he is sent to arrest — no, its about corruption at the highest levels of government — no, it’s about Teddy Roosevelt — but it’s also a tough prison drama as the hour counts down to an innocent man’s execution — and it’s a psychological drama as one man tries to break another to reveal the mastermind behind the bank robbing scheme…

   Well, actually it’s all of that, and with that many elements it shouldn’t work, but still they do.

   I first saw this as an adolescent, and again as a young adult, then it was over forty years before I saw it again earlier this week on You Tube, so I was surprised how accurate my memory was about it, and shocked to find it was every bit as good as I remembered it. Not many films manage that. The look, script, performances, careful recreation of the era from familiar names and slang to the very acts performing on stage, all meticulously recreated and still retaining the charm they possessed then and when first released.

   The film opens with a group of nuns and children touring Arlington National Cemetery in contemporary (1937) times. They pause at General Sheridan’s grave, then the next stone reads Lieutenant Richard Perry, who no one has heard of, though as one nun notes he must have done something great for his country.

   The tour walks on, the camera lingers, and slowly fog and clouds take us back to Washington DC in the McKinley administration and a party at the White House where we meet Vice President Sidney Blackmer as the loud and ‘bully’ Teddy Roosevelt (the first of many times to play TR), then young Lt. Richard Perry (Robert Taylor) recently back from the Spanish American War with medals and the praise of his commander Admiral Dewey (Robert McWade).

   Perry barely gets to flirt with a pretty girl, however, before he is called back to a meeting alone with President McKinley (Frank Conroy). It seems a gang of bank robbers in the Midwest have been so successful they threaten the economy and the Secret Service is helpless because of a high level leak in Washington.

   Perry is known to be rebellious, independent, brilliant, and brave. He will be McKinley’s personal operative, communicate only by a special mark on letters he sends, and his status and existence unknown to any other human.

   You can see where this is going.

   Perry goes deep undercover and sets out on his quest to find the man at the top. (Several IMDb reviews missed entirely that McKinley isn’t sending him to catch bank robbers, but a high placed traitor in Washington — the perils of reviewing films before watching them.) The trail leads to Chicago and a new elegant saloon replete with illegal gambling run by Bat (Baptiste) Duryea (Brian Donlevy) and brutal practical joker Jock Ramsay (Victor McLaglen).

   The star of the show is Bat’s half sister Lil Duryea (Stanwyck) who Jock believes is his girl, though she does everything short of throw a drink in his face to discourage him.

   Naturally Jock is none too pleased to see handsome Perry take and interest and despite her best efforts Lil take an interest back.

   If the middle section drags a little, keep in mind Taylor and Stanwyck were about to marry and very much in love and this was designed to take advantage of that publicity to bring in women audiences. We may complain today there are too many musical numbers and the romance goes on a bit, but audiences in 1937 did not. They wanted to see the real life lovers devouring each other with every glance and Taylor and Stanwyck deliver. Especially Stanwyck who does everything but melt when she looks at Taylor.

   Perry soon realizes the key to the bank robberies and Mr. Big is Bat and Jock, and through Lil to them, but he’s is also in love with her by now. Still he penetrates the gang and soon Bat begins to see the advantage of a smart smooth operator over crude Jock with his unfunny practical jokes and card tricks that never work. And his sister loves Perry as well another bonus, because Bat is not without nuances, including genuine affection for Lil.

   Perry manages to get a letter to McKinley, but when the president informs his cabinet and Vice President, the traitor is among them. Perry had planned to resign and get out with Lil, but he is too close to run now.

   The Midwest is too hot, so they plan to hit a bank in Baltimore, but plans go awry when the police spring a trap and Bat is killed. In due order Jock and Perry are caught, tried, and sentenced to death for the man killed in the holdup shoot out. (Justice actually did move faster then — or at least law did.)

   Perry still doesn’t know who the top man is and plans to work on Jock as the date of execution approaches. The following scenes between Taylor and McLaglen are well done as Jock begins to unravel under the pressure. Perry plays Iago to Jock’s Othello who falls apart with fear and anger as the date of his hanging approaches, and the pull never comes to free him. Both men are effective in these scenes.

   It’s an impressive scene when Jock does break with half a dozen policeman in his tight cell struggling to restrain him.

   Now Perry can write the President, and gets warden John Hamilton to send his specially marked letter so he can be freed and the traitor exposed. Which, as any good dramatist would stage it, is the point when news reaches Perry that McKinley has been shot, and dies without waking up.

   Oooops.

   Perry’s only hope is to tell Lil the truth and send her to President Roosevelt (Sidney Blackmer), but when she finds out he was a policeman and her half brother died because of him, she turns on him and Perry has no where to turn as the hours near for the execution. The warden and the priest come for Ramsay, who has regained enough composure to do card tricks for the priest, and who looks forward to Perry hanging next.

   It isn’t giving that much away that Lil realizes she loves Perry goes to TR, is not believed, then is, then isn’t again until McKinley’s secretary calls a second time to confirm he was instructed to look with specially marked envelopes, but is it in time…

   Of course it is, this is Hollywood, not Stratford-on-Avon. Movie audiences still don’t want to mix too much irony with romance, and killing off Robert Taylor at that point would have killed the box office and word of mouth. These things aren’t film noir, happy endings, if at all possible, are required. Things would soon darken as the war approached, but in 1937 the odds of Taylor and Stanwyck not ending up in clench were microcosmic.

   The film was originally designed for the popular team of Tyrone Power and Alice Faye, then when they were out, Fox borrowed Taylor from MGM, and since he and Stanwyck were soon marrying this was guaranteed box office gold.

   Stanwyck sings her own numbers, and is sprightly, sexy, tough, and — well she’s Barbara Stanwyck and at a point in her career when she made one good or great movie after another. Taylor has some strong scenes in the prison and handles them with skill, his desperation quite real, and his manipulation of Jock has a tough sadistic edge we would not see in him again until the post war era.

   McLaglen chews the scenery with the best of them and yet delivers moments that will recall his Oscar-winning role in John Ford’s The Informer. Donlevy does well with a good bad man, but then he always did. The rest of the cast is capable with Douglas Fowley and John Carradine as henchmen.

   But one actor stands out.

   Sidney Blackmer’s Teddy Roosevelt comes close to stealing the movie every time he is on screen. He is full blooded, bully, enthusiastic, boisterous, loud, and altogether Teddy. He played TR in at least three other movies (uncredited in William Wellman’s Buffalo Bill), and on television, and like Raymond Massey’s Lincoln, it is the role he is best remembered by.

   He was still a popular character actor as late as his role in Rosemary’s Baby but he seldom had a part with this much energy. He also played Anthony Abbot’s (Fulton Ousler) Police Commissioner Thatcher Colt in The Panther’s Claw, and Colt was modeled on TR.

   Director William A. Seiter had a good career that began in 1915 and lasted into television (he made the switch in 1955) up to 1965. If not an auteur, he was capable and professional in the manner of a George Sherman or Woody Van Dyke and helmed all sort of films ably, while screenwriters Lamar Trotti and Allen Rivkin went on to better things.

   This is a nostalgic postcard from the past, tinted with sepia and rose colored glasses, the early years of the 20th Century as only Hollywood could do them. You wouldn’t be too surprised if Perry turned out to be Nicholas Carter and this came straight from the Nickel Library and the pen of Frederick Rennasler Dey himself.

   If the film misses a beat I have never noticed it. It is exactly what is means to be, and to expect anything more or damn it for not being anything else is to totally miss the point that it is perfect for what was intended.

   I cannot find it in myself to criticize any film for being exactly what the audience wanted and the director, screenwriters, and producer intended. Doing anything different would have upset the delicate balance that allows this to work, and in 1937 no one wanted to see the film noir version of this story.

   It’s like complaining because there is no CGI in Snow White or Bert Lahr doesn’t look much like a real lion in The Wizard of Oz as far as I’m concerned, it completely misses the point. It is well and good to not like it for what it is, but don’t condemn it for not being what it was never intended to be.

   For what it is, its a wedding cake topper for an attractive young couple when they were at their most beautiful and has just the right mix of romance, comedy, melodrama, and grit to entertain anyone who loves movie movies. It is a perfect example of they don’t make them like that anymore with all the flaws and genius that statement encompasses. Seeing it again after forty years I was astounded at what good taste my fourteen year old self had in liking it and remembering it so well at the time.

   To think they used to give away dishes to get people to come in and see movies this good.

IT’S ABOUT CRIME
by Marv Lachman

BILL CRIDER – Too Late to Die. Walker, hardcover, 1986. Ivy, paperback, 1989.

   Mystery novels with a rural policeman as the leading character are a rare breed. One of the best of them is Too Late to Die by Bill Crider.

   Crider’s hero is Dan Rhodes, Sheriff of Blacklin County, Texas, and most of the action takes place in and around one of that small county’s smaller spots, Thurston (population 408). The book is true its country locale (with characters like Billy Joe Bryan, the retarded local “Peeping Tom”), but there is an intelligence at work here which gives this work a sophistication not often found in backwoods mysteries.

   The local settings ring with such truth that they completely convinced this city slicker who was brought up in The Bronx. I especially liked the scenes at the general store and the debate at the school during Rhodes’ reelection campaign. They all work to strengthen a good detective story.

   Anyone familiar with Bill Crider’s work in reference books and fan magazines should not be too surprised that this is one of the best first mysteries of 1986.

— Reprinted from The MYSTERY FANcier, Vol. 8, No. 5, Sept-Oct 1986 (slightly revised).

LOST AND FOUND AT YOU TUBE: SHOESTRING
by Michael Shonk


“Mocking Bird.” An episode of SHOESTRING. BBC/BBC1, UK, 19 October 1980. Cast: Trevor Eve as PI Eddie Shoestring, Michael Medwin as Don Satchley, Doran Goodwin as Erica Bayliss and Liz Crowther as Sonia. Guest Cast: Frederick Jaeger, John J. Carney, Patti Love, David Sibley. Created by Richard Harris and Robert Banks Stewart. Written by William Hood. Theme by George Fenton. Directed by Ben Bolt. Produced by Robert Banks Stewart.

   SHOESTRING is perhaps as fondly remembered overseas as THE ROCKFORD FILES remains here in the States. And it is easy to see why as both are blessed with clever writing, likeable characters and a talented lead actor.

   SHOESTRING is on DVD but has never been released on the American format NTSC region 1 so you will need a multi-format DVD player if you wish to buy the DVD.

   While there are more episodes of the series on YouTube, I have chosen a special program, SHAW TAYLOR’S CRIME FILES where British celebrity Shaw Taylor MBE takes a quick look at the series. A complete episode of SHOESTRING from its second season “Mocking Bird” begins around the 3:19 point.

   SHOESTRING was still popular when Trevor Eve decided to leave due to his fear of being type-casted. Here is an excerpt from a popular British TV series CULT OF… that looked at various cult TV favorites, in this case THE CULT OF SHOESTRING.

   For even more information about SHOESTRING, you can read this page from the BFI site.

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