FIRST YOU READ, THEN YOU WRITE
by Francis M. Nevins


   For no reason I can put my finger on, I recently felt an urge to reread some of Dashiell Hammett’s shorter work. Again for no particular reason, my starting point was not a Continental Op story but “The Assistant Murderer,” which was first published in Black Mask for February 1926 and is most easily accessed today in Hammett’s Crime Stories & Other Writings (Library of America, 2001).

   In his only published exploit, spectacularly ugly Baltimore PI Alec Rush is retained by a young banker to find out why someone is shadowing a gal he’s sweet on but was forced to fire. Soon Rush discovers that the shadow has been paid by two different women to kill the gal in question.

   From there the plot gets more convoluted by the minute. The journal I kept in my salad days tells me that I first read this novelette early in 1965, not long after my 22nd birthday and during my first year in law school. Back then I loved it. Half a century later I still like it but perhaps with a bit less enthusiasm.

   What I found most interesting today is not so much the plot or characterizations or style but the legal aspects. Which, like those of another Hammett story I discussed in an earlier column, leave something to be desired.

   To explain where Hammett went off the tracks requires me to spoil some of the plot, but I’ll try to minimize the spoliation by translating the situation into a sort of law examination question. A, who died long before the story begins, left an estate of roughly $2,000,000, a princely sum back in the early 20th century and not to be sneezed at even today.

   He had two sons, B and C. His will created a trust excluding B, whose lifestyle he disapproved of, and naming C as sole income beneficiary. The will specified that C was free to share the income with B to whatever extent he chose, which he would have been free to do anyway.

   Typically for a Hammett character, C had chosen to keep the entire income for himself. B dies, a widower survived by a daughter whom we’ll call D. Under A’s will, on C’s death the corpus of the trust is to be divided among A’s grandchildren. Since C is unmarried and childless, this means that on his death everything will go to D. As chance would have it, D is married to a sort of Iago figure who manipulates her into killing Uncle C.

   The husband’s scheme doesn’t require that his wife D be tagged for the murder but whether she is or isn’t leaves him cold. “If they hanged her,” he tells Rush at the climax, “the two million would come to me. If she got a long term in prison, I’d have the handling of the money at least.”

   Wrong, Dash! If D were to be convicted of C’s murder, the old common-law maxim that you can’t profit by your own crime would come into play, and the A trust fund would wind up by intestate succession in the hands of various remote relatives of whose identity Hammett tells us nothing. In the absence of such relatives, the fund would probably end up in the coffers of the state of Maryland by a process known as escheat.

   But suppose D were only suspected of the murder. Suppose she were never tried for it, or were tried and acquitted, or were convicted but had her conviction overturned on appeal? Could those remote relatives or the state of Maryland sue to divest her of the inheritance in civil court, where her guilt would have to be proved by a mere preponderance of the evidence, not beyond a reasonable doubt as in a criminal trial?

   You may well ask! I used to throw out that kind of question to my class when I was teaching Decedents’ Estates and Trusts, but this column is already sinking under the weight of legalese and I won’t deal with that issue unless someone asks me to.

***

   Another aspect of “The Assistant Murderer” that intrigued me was: How many turns of phrase in this almost 90-year-old story need to be explained to readers today? At one point a lowlife tells Alec Rush that “A certain party comes to me with a knock-down from a party that knows me.”

   The Library of America editors explain that a knock-down is slang for an introduction. But a few pages further on, Rush says: “I can see just enough to get myself tangled up if I don’t watch Harvey.” There is no character named Harvey in the story. Did the Library of America people feel that the meaning of this phrase would be clear to readers?

   It certainly wasn’t to me. But googling the two words along with Hammett’s name led me to A Dashiell Hammett Companion (Greenwood Press, 2000) by Robert L. Gale, who calls it “an inexplicable reference.” I concur. And in caps!

***

   Let’s migrate from one end of the crime spectrum to the other. I scrutinized every line of James E. Keirans’ John Dickson Carr Companion before it was published but somehow I missed the absence of one Carr adaptation that Keirans missed too. Among the flood of TV PI shows that followed in the wake of Peter Gunn was Markham (1959-60), a 30-minute series starring suave Ray Milland as lawyer-turned-private-investigator Roy Markham.

   Most of the scripts for the 59 episodes of this series were originals but a few were based on published short stories by well-known writers — including Ed Lacy and Henry Slesar — and one was adapted from a Carr radio drama. In “The Phantom Archer” (March 31, 1960) an English nobleman calls on Markham to help fight a ghostly archer who is roaming the halls of a historic manor.

   Carr’s radio play of the same name was first heard on the CBS series Suspense (March 9, 1943) and the script was published in EQMM for June 1948 and collected in The Door to Doom and Other Detections (1980). Who directed and scripted this Markham episode remain unknown but the cast included Murray Matheson and Eunice Gayson. There are eleven references to “The Phantom Archer” in the index to Keirans’ book but there should have been a twelfth.

FILM ILLUSIONISTS – Part One: Georges Méliès
by Walter Albert


   One of the “givens” of film history is that French director Georges Méliès, a magician who turned his talents from stage to film enchantments, is one of the great film innovators. In my surveys of French films, I have always dutifully shown Méliès’ Trip to the Moon (1902) and talked glibly of the importance of his work.

   I was only repeating standard film history, and I had no real basis for believing it until this past weekend when I attended an extraordinary event sponsored by the film section of Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Institute.

   Méliès’ granddaughter, Madeleine Malthète-Méliès, came to Pittsburgh to present three different programs of his films with piano accompaniment by Eric Leguen. I was able to see thirty-one of the forty-seven films she screened, including four that were hand-tinted, and what I saw on those two rainy, chilly October evenings was a revelation.

   In the dozen years from about 1898 to 1910 that Méliès was producing and directing, he made over five hundred short films. His family has been able to assemble and restore only about 150, so the series we were shown represents about one third of the surviving films.

   Working before the era of the feature-length films that were to dominate world production after 1912, Méliès drew on his experience as a stage illusionist and his incomparable visual imagination.

   Disguises and transformations abound in his films, and he devised the dissolve, fade, and superimposed image to make his fantastic tricks possible. The prints are not always properly defined, and some of them are not complete, but the witty inventions from his apparently inexhaustible box of illusions are still a delight.

   What is particularly striking about Méliès’ films is their pacing, a perfectly choreographed comic rhythm that is most impressive when Méliès himself is performing.

   For director-producer-writer Méliès was also a comic actor of rare skill, with a good-natured pleasure in fooling an audience that is still infectious after eighty years. He was very fond of playing the role of the Devil, and the final film of the series, Satan in Prison (1907), was a perfect capstone to the screenings.

   In this dazzling film, the Devil-Méliès furnishes a bare cell out of his cape, complete to a lovely lady toasted at a candlelight midnight supper. When they are surprised by her jealous husband, she collapses into a heap of crumpled fabric in one of the most magical of Méliès’ effects.

   Then, in a furious reverse movement, the Devil strips the room and, disappearing behind the cape, leaps toward the rear wall where the cape suddenly hangs suspended from two nails and, when it is pulled down, exposes a bare wall.

   I mentioned to Madame Malthète-Méliès my pleasure in her grandfather’s good humour, and she replied — her entire face lighting up — that even after he had lost everything else, he never lost his humour and was always playing the prankster, pulling innumerable cigarettes out of her ear.

   In his last years (he died in 1938) Méliès operated a toy shop in one of the Parisian train stations, but what find most painful is the anecdote of the evening that Méliès burned all of his negatives in the garden of his Montreuil home. Fortunately, prints have survived, but those wasted years when he was eclipsed by a generation of gifted comedians — all of whom drew upon his routines and inventions — is, I think, one of the great tragedies of film history.

— Reprinted from The MYSTERY FANcier, Vol. 6, No. 6, November-December 1982.

Reviewed by JONATHAN LEWIS:         


THE LAST OUTPOST. Paramount Pictures, 1951, Re-released as Cavalry Charge. Ronald Reagan, Rhonda Fleming, Bruce Bennett, Bill Williams, Noah Beery, Peter Hansen, Hugh Beaumont, Lloyd Corrigan. Screenwriters: Geoffrey Homes, Winston Miller, George Worthing Yates Director: Lewis R. Foster.

   The Last Outpost was Ronald Reagan’s first Western film and it’s a darn good one. Directed by Lewis R. Foster, the movie initially feels like it’s going to be just another B-Western about the U.S. Cavalry in the American Southwest. After all, all the stock-in-trade characters are there: the corrupt white man who runs the local trading post; the beautiful girl from back East who’s out of place in the sparsely populated desert; and the newly arrived U.S. Army officer.

   But if you’re just a little bit patient, you’ll find that The Last Outpost is a surprisingly charming, funny, and action-packed movie with a plot that’s complex, but never convoluted.

   Reagan portrays Confederate Army Captain Captain Vance Britton, a Baltimorean who signed up to fight for the Gray, rather than for the Blue. He’s in charge of a Confederate Cavalry brigade positioned out in Arizona. His task is to harass the U.S. Army posted out in the remote desert country. Things get complicated for the always affable Captain Britton (Reagan) once he learns that not only his brother, Col. Jeb Britton (Bruce Bennett) is now stationed at Ft. Gil, Arizona, but that his ex-girlfriend, Julie (Rhonda Fleming) is there too.

   As if that weren’t enough drama for one man to deal with, the Apaches are about to go on the warpath, threatening Whites from both the North and from Dixie.

   Can our hero successfully win back the girl, make amends with his estranged brother, and defeat the Apache? I think you know the answer to that one, but getting there is well more than half the fun in this altogether financially successful film from Pine-Thomas Productions.



HONG KONG. Paramount Pictures, 1952. Re-released as Bombs Over China. Ronald Reagan, Rhonda Fleming, Nigel Bruce, Marvin Miller, Mary Somerville. Director: Lewis R. Foster

   Before there was Indiana Jones, there was Ronald Reagan.

   That’s the impression I had watching Hong Kong, a rather middling adventure film starring the future President as Jeff Williams, an ex-GI turned arms merchant living in China during the Communist takeover. While on the run from the Reds, Williams takes a young Chinese orphan boy under his wing and teams up with the lovely schoolteacher, Victoria Evans (Rhonda Fleming), as the two make their way by plane to Hong Kong.

   Williams may not carry a whip and he’s no archaeologist, but he sports a leather jacket and has his eye on a priceless work of art. There are a couple of bad guys hot on his trail too.

   But while Indiana Jones and The Temple of Doom, another film with a leather jacket wearing hero, a Chinese boy, and a girl, had an edge to it, Hong Kong is a rather plodding affair with little tension and even less adventure.

   Reagan is a formidable screen presence, no doubt, but his character is just too nice for his own good. Even when he tries to be rapacious, he just can’t bring himself to go through with it.

   It’s not that I necessarily wanted the character he portrayed to be a bad guy or sell the orphan down the river, so to speak, as much as I wanted him to be a little more hard-nosed. It’s supposed to be Hong Kong in the late 1940s after all.

REVIEWED BY BARRY GARDNER:


BILL GRANGER – Drover. Jimmy Drover #1. William Morrow, hardcover, May 1991. Avon, paperback, May 1992.

   Bill Granger is the author of the four book Chicago Police series of quite a few years ago (originally published as by Joe Gash, and underrated in my opinion, though one won an Edgar), and the very successful November Man spy series, which now runs to twelve.

   This book introduces his third series, and is about a well-known sportswriter unfairly banned from sportswriting because of alleged contacts with the underworld. The second in the series, Drover and the Zebras, has already been released.

   Jimmy Drover now lives in Santa Cruz, and makes his living investigating various aspects of the sports world for the owner of a Las Vegas book As the story opens, he goes to the aid of an old flame whose husband has killed himself because of gambling debts. Shortly after, an old gangster acquaintance from Chicago contacts him with a story about someone planning a major fix in the NFL, and offering Drover help with his lady’s problem in return for assistance with his own. The plot thickens, bubbles, and boils over.

   Granger creates interesting characters, and tells their story in his usual highly professional manner. Drover and his friends are reasonably engaging (particularly the ex-fireman, Black Kelly, naturally), and the villains — who include professional gamblers, government agents, and Chicago commodity traders — are truly scuzzy. Good, but not great.

– Reprinted from Fireman, Fireman, Save My Books #2, July 1992.


       The Jimmy Drover series –

1. Drover (1991)
2. Drover and the Zebras (1992)

3. Drover and the Designated Hitter (1994)

Note:   There were 13 books in Granger’s “November Man” series, one more than when Barry wrote this review.

Reviewed by DAN STUMPF:         


WALK LIKE A DRAGON Paramount, 1960. Jack Lord, Nobu McCarthy, James Shigeta, Mel Tormé, Josephine Hutchinson, Rodolpho Acosta, Benson Fong, Michael Pate, Lilyan Chauvin, Don “Red” Barry and Lester Matthews. Written by James Clavell and Daniel Mainwaring. Directed by James Clavell. Yes, that James Clavell!

   Not entirely successful, but interesting enough to keep you watching, this plays out like an extended episode of Have Gun Will Travel; it even starts in San Francisco in the 1870s, as Jack Lord is touched by the sight of a Chinese girl (the talented and subtly touching Nobu McCarthy) being auctioned off in a slave market and impulsively buys her to set her free.

   Things of course just ain’t that simple; Nobu got no place to go to (see what I did there?) so Jack takes her back to his small town, where she encounters racial prejudice and slowly wins his heart — betcha didn’t see that coming, didja?

   But they’re only two sides of the equation; there’s another refugee Chinese in town (James Shigeta) trying to earn the respect of the white bigots around him. He loves Nobu too, and I don’t blame him, but he figures the way to go about it is to acquire prowess with a gun so he can face off against Jack Lord.

   There’s also Mel Tormé as The Deacon, a black-clad philosopher-gunman (another nod to Have Gun Will Travel) who sometimes sings(?!) and undertakes to educate James Shigeta in the ways of the gun.

   Well it’s an earnest little film, and off-beat enough to keep the viewer alert, but the problem is that not much happens. People talk, they look askance, they talk a little more, go to Church, talk about going to Church, go shopping, talk about shopping…..

   You get the idea: no chases, fisticuffs, gun battles… not so much as a dogfight to liven things up till near the end, when we get a bit of nicely done and very dramatic gunplay. In fact, as the climax approaches and the three protagonists face off, all motivated by love, Walk achieves some real intensity as – for once in a gunfight — one doesn’t know what to expect.

   The acting is uniformly good here, or maybe it’s just that the characters are better-written than usual. Rodolpho Acosta, normally a villainous Indian or Mexican Bandit, makes a fine cynical lawman. Lilyan Chauvin is a rather complex “saloon gal” and Benson Fong (Tommy Chan in the Monogram Charlie Chan films) gives real depth to his subservient Chinese Laundryman.

   The only one I’m not sure about is Mel Tormé; he’s relaxed, self-assured and handles his lines capably, but he just looks like a jazz singer plunked down in a Western — sort of a cross between a hipster and a singing cowboy.

   This aside though, and if you make allowances for a rather quiet time of it, Walk Like a Dragon will hold your attention and even offer a few surprises.

Reviewed by DAVID VINEYARD:          


JOHN McPARTLAND – The Face of Evil. Gold Medal #393, paperback original, 1954. BlackMask.com, softcover, 2006.

   There’s always a little trouble. Some lad from New York’s midtown or Chicago decides to make himself a score for ten thousand or so with a touch of blackmail or extortion. “Call Bill Oxford. He’ll handle it. The kid’s tough and smart and he knows everybody.”


   Bill Oxford is tough as nails and not very nice. He used to be a hot shot newsman during the war, worked on the legendary military paper Yank with people like Marion Hargrove (See Here Private Hargrove, well known screen and television writer), then, still young, he went to the city, got a job as a ‘sharpshooter’ on a big paper, the kind of guy who knew people and things, the kind of guy who would put a blackmailer or extortionist in their place for you, fix a scandal, break a few skulls. Then he went to work in advertising for the Agency, for Roger Mooney …With Roger Mooney you say, ‘Sure, Roger,’ and jump through whatever hoops he’s holding.

   Roger Mooney has a client running for office in Balboa, California. He’s not a very good candidate, in fact he’s a very bad one, and he has some problems, namely an honest lawyer named Ringling Black, who has the goods on the client and is about to broadcast them. All Bill Oxford has to do is fix things.

   “You go down to Balboa. Frame this Black. Frame him hard and fast. Maybe with a woman. Something like that, something plenty nasty.”


   You don’t have to be all that clever to figure out this is a paperback original from Gold Medal by the underrated John MacPartland, whose books like Big Red’s Daughter, The Kingdom of Johnny Cool, and Tokyo Doll were hardboiled in the vein of John D. MacDonald or Charles Williams — not just a rehash of Hammett, Chandler, and Cain, but a new vision of the hard-boiled nineteen fifties, suburban rather than urban, small town or small city politics instead of Chi town or NYC.

   MacPartland’s mean streets were often in such settings. His prose was hard and tight with flourishes of dark beauty, but never showy:

   Two women called to me, “Bill!” Nile’s voice and Ann’s. I walked along the night-black street alone.

   Outside it was cool and dark with a fresh wind from the bay. I left the car in the parking lot and walked toward the couple of blocks that were downtown Balboa.

   Downstairs for a drink at the bar. It was crowded now, and there was the laughter of women, the low voices of men. A good bunch — the women all beautiful or close to it, the men rich-man brown and with good clothes.

   I went to her, quietly, and put my arms around her, hunted her mouth with mine. She pushed at me with her hands, tried to say something, and then I found her. It was stepping out of reality into something I had never known before. This was the whirlpool.

   Sometimes I would try to say something, a fragment of a word, a quick whisper of “Nile!” Nothing else. The drunkenness burned away, and I forgot everything but Nile.

   There was no exhaustion, no satiety. In time, a long time, there was a gray light on the long row of windows, a rim of light over the roundness of the hills.


   There are two women, Nile Lisbon, widow of well loved John Lisbon, friend of Ringling Black, girlfriend of tough sadistic King McCarthy, and Balboa’s assistant district attorney, a woman too dangerous to be with and too beautiful to ignore. In anyone else’s hands Nile would be a femme fatale, in MacPartland’s she is bruised and lost and hard to resist, good and bad, sweet and sour. You would know Nile if you saw her, be attracted, but unless you were Bill Oxford you would likely back away:

   She was the kind of woman a man noticed, mostly because of her eyes. Dark, almost black pools, they had a warmth that I felt could turn to fire. She had turned her head, looking over the shoulder of the man she was with, and we looked at each other. The third or fourth time it happened he noticed it and I paid some attention to what he was like.


   Nile gets Oxford in a fight with King the first thing. It doesn’t seem to bother him much. Then there is Ann Field. Six years earlier there at been a thing between them:

   Yeah, sure, Ann. Cute and trim as a palomino colt, that girl.


   Not now though. Ann has changed and how she feels about Bill has changed:

   Now she was sleek, a jungle animal who’d been caught and caged in a filthy zoo too long, the kind of girl who describes herself as a model but who does no modeling. Her eyes weren’t wide, nor was the world new and good to her. Any man could see all that.


   Ann doesn’t have good memories of Bill: “Don’t hello me, you son-of-a-bitch. I’ll kill you and spit on your corpse.”

   Then to round things out there are the hard drunk kids in town for spring break and Mooney’s enforcer Whitey D’Arcy, who owns a car dealership and owns more than a few cops. Mooney and D’Arcy play hard:

   Mooney had used hired killers where it had been necessary years ago. California had been a rough state in the late 1930’s. The chips were down for Mooney today.

   Whitey D’Arcy was not an idiot. We both knew what it was about. If I gave him trouble I’d pay for it, hard, but not here and not now. Likely I’d get my kidneys broken; it was the number-one big payoff for trouble guys.


   Bill finds himself suddenly with a conscious and a need to pay back for his sins. Redemption could get him killed when Ringling Black is shot and the evidence against Mooney’s client goes missing. The cops work for D’Arcy and want Bill, and his only allies are the seductive Nile and the wounded Ann.

   Maybe the ending is a little sentimental. Maybe it should have been harder and with less hope, more Woolrich’s doomed fate haunted heroes or one of David Goodis hopeless losers, Jim Thompson’s amoral heroes would have handled things differently.

   I like how MacPartland ends it. He writes hard-boiled movie prose and writes well. You can hear the music rise and see John Payne or Robert Mitchum and maybe Liz Scott or Gloria Grahame walk away, a little less hard, a bit wiser, a touch more human than they began:

   Ann and I left the Hut and walked toward the ocean. We could hear the music and the young voices of the nine days of Easter through the night.

   The roar of the long combers breaking into the surf was loud and the moon was rising in silver over the sea blackness. “This is what I wanted to do with you six years ago, Bill. Walk along the dunes and wait for the night to end.”

   “We can do it now, Ann. It’s not too late for us.”


   Maybe it is, maybe not, MacPartland clearly likes the idea they can be saved, but he hasn’t sugar coated who Ann is or what Bill was. He has portrayed them as who they were, shown us what they could do and did do. He’s taken us down darker and meaner streets than the romantic private knights of Chandler or the tough birds Hammett gave us. These streets are inhabited by people we know and people we saw in the towns we lived in. Those of us who worked on newspapers or advertising knew the Bill Oxfords of the world. Some of us have known Nile Lisbon and Ann Field in one guise or another.

   If you worked in advertising you knew Roger Mooney, maybe not quite so lethal, and you surely knew of Whitey D’Arcy if you never knew him personally if you grew up in a certain size city.

   The Face of Evil, sometimes it is in a mirror, sometimes it is someone we know, a power broker like Mooney, a big fish in a small pool like D’Arcy, sometimes a bully like King. Sometimes it is just the corruption of small town America. John MacPartland captures the loss of innocence, the yearning for something that never really was, the hope of redemption, and the cost of making a stand finally.

   This isn’t a great book, but it’s a very good one. It will keep you up to finish in a single reading and leave you satisfied. It’s one of those Gold Medal novels that you recall with real fondness and if you write yourself a touch of awe. Maybe he isn’t in the very first rank, but he isn’t far off it either. It’s nice to read a book once in a while that just reaffirms why you started reading in this genre in the first place. There are times you don’t want a masterpiece, just a master at his best.

Reviewed by JONATHAN LEWIS:         


THE LAST OUTPOST. Paramount Pictures, 1935. Cary Grant, Claude Rains, Gertrude Michael, Kathleen Burke, Colin Tapley, Margaret Swope. Based on the novel The Drum by F. Britten Austin. Directors: Charles Barton & Louis J. Gasnier.

   As much as I like Cary Grant and as much as I appreciate Claude Rains, I still couldn’t find much to truly admire in The Last Outpost, a meandering romance-during-wartime melodrama.

   Grant portrays Michael Andrews, a British officer captured by the Turks during the First World War. A British intelligence officer, a mysterious man who calls himself “Smith” (Rains), comes to Andrews’ rescue and frees him from Ottoman captivity.

   The two men make their way through Mesopotamia, Kurdish tribesmen hot on their trail. Andrews ends up injured and back in a British hospital in Cairo, where he falls for his nurse, Rosemary Haydon (Gertrude Michael). But all is not as it seems, for Haydon is actually married to a British intelligence officer who she hasn’t seen for three long years.

   By now, I’m sure you’ve figured out who that intelligence officer must be.

   Based on F. Britten Austin’s novel, The Drum, the movie would probably have been all but forgotten had Grant and Rains not appeared in it. The plot is formulaic, there’s a whole lot of stock footage, and the cinematography is nothing special. If you’re looking for a World War I film to watch, you can do a lot better than this mediocre programmer.

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