AGATHA CHRISTIE – Sad Cypress. Dell #529, paperback, mapback edition, 1951. First published in the UK by Collins, hardcover, 1940; 1st published in the US by Dodd Mead, hardcover, 1940. Reprinted many times since.

   Agatha Christie tries her hand at romance in this one, more than usual, I believe, and while it’s still a detective story that sucks the reader right in, I don’t think that it’s one of her better ones.

   Accused of killing the young girl who stole her fiancé away from her, unknowingly so, Elinor Carlisle in the story’s prologue is on trial for her murder. The girl was poisoned, and even Hercule Poirot concedes that on the face of the evidence, there is no one else who could have done it.

   Act One of the story is a flashback to a time well before the murder. Other than a cameo appearance in the prologue, Poirot does not show up until the book is half over. Although the local doctor who engages his services only wishes to prove Elinor innocent, Poirot demurs, saying he must only go where the facts take him.

   The second half of the book is then split into two parts. First, the eccentric Belgian detective questions everyone who has any connection with case. Then follows Elinor Carlisle’s trial, and then and only then, when the defense has its turn, are the Poirot’s deductions that revealed.

    Wills (or in one case, the lack thereof) are important in this tale, and of course there is the matter of the poison that is used, one of Christie’s favorite devices for removing certain people from her stories. It is easy to spot some of the red herrings for what they are, while the matter of parentage comes also into play, and at the end Poirot explains how he knew that everyone involved in the case told at least one lie to him.

   While the explanation at the end almost holds up, I think the solution has more than one loose end to it. How could the killer get away with it, you ask (or least I did), and why didn’t Poirot trust the police to catch that killer before he/she makes his/her escape, instead leaving the the defense to provide the evidence in court. The trial is a charade, in other words, designed by the author only for its dramatic effect, which as in all of Agatha Christie’s novels, is considerable.

   Christie is as readable as always in Sad Cypress (the title coming from a passage in Shakespeare), but the story is just a little too complicated this time, and for me, not satisfactorily so.

Reviewed by JONATHAN LEWIS:         

THE BROTHERS RICO. Columbia Pictures, 1957. Richard Conte, Dianne Foster, Kathryn Grant, Larry Gates, James Darren, Argentina Brunetti. Screenplay: Lewis Meltzer , based on the novel Les frères Rico by Georges Simenon (Paris, 1952). Director: Phil Karlson.

   Adapted from a Georges Simenon story, The Brothers Rico is an effective, albeit decidedly uneven, crime film that packs some great punches, but occasionally gets bogs down in family melodrama. The film features an exceptionally well cast Richard Conte as Eddie Rico, a former mob accountant now living an idyllic suburban life and running an allegedly clean business.

   But just how clean is Eddie’s laundry business? It’s ambiguous, to say the least, but he at least has the persona of a respectable businessman and has assured his wife that his connected days are long since past.

   Then out of the blue, a letter and a phone call change all that, casting doubt on Rico and his wife’s plans to adopt a child. Apparently, Eddie’s two other brothers, Gino and Johnny, were involved in a hit, and now Johnny is nowhere to be found. According to Sid Kubik (Larry Gates), Eddie’s serpentine former boss based in sunny Miami, Johnny may be on his way to turning state’s evidence against the organization.

   Kubik sends Eddie to New York to track down Johnny to get him out of the country and to make sure that Johnny’s brother-in-law doesn’t force the young Rico brother to turn his back on the family, so to speak.

   Overall, The Brothers Rico is worth a look. Conte is forceful and convincing in the lead and the atmosphere is one of entrapment and moral turpitude. Eddie’s a man with feet in three different worlds: the warm, communal Little Italy neighborhood where his mother and grandmother still live; the suburban Florida life he shares with his wife; and the sleazy, opportunistic realm of organized crime.

   Some of the film’s most effective scenes are filmed outdoors in the bright sunlight, a compelling moral contrast to the dark world in which the three brothers, none of them as innocent as they might think themselves to be, are ensnared.

   Although packaged as part of a film noir DVD box set from Columbia Pictures, the cinematography in The Brothers Rico isn’t noir at all, although the movie does feature a protagonist whose world is spinning out of control. [SPOILER ALERT: Had the studio cut out the innocent, happy ending, it actually would have made the film a lot more noir than it ends up when all is said and done.]


NICHOLAS KILMER – Harmony in Flesh and Black. Henry Holt, hardcover, 1995. Harper, paperback, 1995.

       — Man with a Squirrel. Henry Holt, hardcover, 1996. Poisoned Pen Press, softcover, 2000.

       — O Sacred Head. Henry Holt, hardcover, 1997. Poisoned Pen Press, softcover, 2000.

       — Lazarus, Arise. Poisoned Pen Press, hardcover, 2001; softcover, 2005.

   Go figure. In my previous review, I was more impressed by Michelle Blake’s The Book of Light than I was Nicholas Kilmer’s Dirty Linen (1999), but it’s the latter’s Fred Taylor “art mystery” series that I’ve been devouring like a box of chocolate-covered walnuts.

   The situation is somewhat the same in each of the novels I’ve read: Fred Taylor, with a mysterious past that includes a traumatic stint in Vietnam, works for wealthy Boston collector Clayton Reed. Taylor has an office at Reed’s, but is part owner of a house in Watertown serving as a way station for scarred Vietnam veterans, although he lives much of the time with his librarian girl friend Molly and her two children at their Cambridge house.

   The plots are generally sparked by an artwork that Reed wants Taylor to help him acquire, a task that puts Fred in extreme peril. Kilmer, a sometime painter and art dealer, has a cynical view of the art scene but he’s endowed his protagonist with a good eye for quality painting and the skill to negotiate the shark-infested waters dealers and collectors appear to swim in.

   Many of the characters are only minimally sketched, but with a vitality that keeps the involved plots in motion. The most memorable of the characters is Jacob Geist, an gifted Jewish conceptual artist who is only momentarily onstage at the beginning of Lazarus, Arise. In spite of this cameo appearance, he comes to dominate the novel as Taylor discovers his secret studio and the cache of inspired drawings that he was working on when he died.

   The best gimmick may be the one used in Man with a Squirrel. An antique dealer buys a section of an oil painting that has been rudely cut away from the canvas. As Fred attempts to track down the rest of the painting he finds that it and its dismemberment are connected to a popular self-help psychologist whose latest scam is deprogramming victims of satanic cults. The violence escalates, culminating in a climactic scene that strains the novel’s credibility but does tie up all the loose ends.

   The action in the novels may be intense and bloody, but the dialogue is often intelligent, with informed discussions of art and artists. Some readers may find these too academic for their taste. I didn’t, but then I’m a retired academic, so maybe I’m somewhat prejudiced.

   The novels don’t challenge, in precision and economy of style or structure, Iain Pears’ series set in Italy, but they are an entertaining mix of knowledgeable art dealings and crime that should interest the reader who likes the subject.

Bibliographic Note: There are three later books in the series: Madonna of the Apes (2005), A Butterfly in Flame (2010), and A Paradise for Fools (2011).

One of my favorite songs of all time. From 1974:

“If you got a problem, don’t care what it is
“If you need a hand, I can assure you this
“I can help, I got two strong arms
“I can help.”

Reviewed by DAN STUMPF on:

BLACK FRIDAY. Universal, 1940. Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi, Stanley Ridges, Anne Gwynne Anne Nagel. Written by Curt Siodmack and Eric Taylor. Directed by Arthur Lubin.

   An odd confluence of horror movie and gangster film, done up with the usual polish of Universal’s upper-case monster movies, but sadly unfocused.

   Boris Karloff stars as (surprise!) a Mad Scientist, and Bela Lugosi gets second-billing as a bad guy, but the meatiest part goes to Stanley Ridges as Karloff’s friend, a likable old professor of the Walter Albert type, who gets run over by a bank robber (also Ridges) in mid-getaway who then conveniently cracks up his car, leaving Karloff with two men on his hands who will quickly die unless he tries his unconventional theories….

   With Curt Siodmack’s name on the credits, the knowing horror buff won’t be surprised to see a brain transplant in the offing. In this case, Karloff sews part of robber/Ridges’ brain into professor/Ridges’ noggin, resulting in a mild-mannered professor who morphs into a heartless killer from time to time as the plot demands.

   Well we all had a few teachers like that in College, didn’t we? In this case though, Karloff figures out that robber/Ridges knows where all sorts of stolen loot may be hidden, and means to get his hands on it—another instance of the sad decline of Universal’s monsters that I mentioned earlier, in my review of Spider Woman Strikes Back.

   Anyway, to further his ends, Karloff sets about bringing more and more Crook out of the Academic, at which point Black Friday turns into a Warners-style gangster pic, with molls, shifty miscreant and a rival gang boss, played by poor Bela.

   It was about this time someone at Universal decided Lugosi was never going to get another decent part there. With the arguable exceptions of his Ygor reprise in Ghost of Frankenstein and the Monster in Frankenstein Meets the Wolfman, his career there was consigned to a series of sinister butlers and indifferent red herrings, with good billing but nothing very much to do.

   Karloff on the other hand, looks marvelously sinister in this, and Stanley Ridges is very effective in an underplayed star turn, equally convincing as the gentle academic and the nasty desperado, and really except for the sad sight of Lugosi languishing on the sidelines it’s an enjoyable film. Just one thing has always puzzled me about it though:

   Black Friday opens on Karloff in a jail cell awaiting imminent execution, spinning his tale in flashback. But when I got to the end of the film I couldn’t figure out what he even got arrested for; in fact, he never doers anything particularly criminal in this film –- not in front of witnesses, anyway — and as THE END flashed across the screen, I wondered if perhaps the writers had thought this thing out all that carefully.

   Anyway, if any of the legions of obscure movie buffs out there remember this one — and if you’ve done your shopping and polished off the leftovers by now, perhaps someone can explain it to me.

Reviewed by JONATHAN LEWIS:         

WILD, WILD PLANET. MGM, Italy-US, 1966. Original title: I criminali della galassia. Tony Russell, Lisa Gastoni, Massimo Serato, Carlo Giustini (as Charles Justin), Franco Nero. Director: Antonio Margheriti.

   Directed by Antonio Margheriti (under the name Anthony Dawson), Wild Wild Planet is a low-budget Italian science fiction movie with some ridiculously stilted dialogue, silly miniatures for special effects, and a plot that defies credulity, even for outlandish science fiction.

   Yet, for those fans of campy and dare I say it – cheesy – movies, it’s not without its charms. Much like Mario Bava’s Planet of the Vampires (1965), it’s the atmosphere, rather than the plot, that counts. With a skillful use of color and costumes and a hint of grotesquerie here and there, there’s just enough pizazz to keep the viewer engaged throughout. Plus, there’s cult film favorite Franco Nero – a quite young and clean-shaven Nero, I should add – in an early supporting role.

   The plot, such as it is, is something straight out of the serials. A diabolical scientist named Nurmi (Massimo Serato) is engaged in a sinister plot to create a master race of humans. Sounds typical enough, right? Oh, did I mention that Nurmi has some affiliation with a sinister sounding entity called “the corporations” and that he utilizes female robots to kidnap persons he wants to use for his experiments? Of course, it’s up to the movie’s hero, Commander Mike Halstead (Tony Russell) to stop him and to rescue the beautiful Connie Gomez (Lisa Gastoni) from Nurmi’s evil grasp.

   As I said earlier, it’s not the plot, but the borderline psychedelic atmosphere that counts and makes the movie worth watching. Sometimes the special effects are just plain silly, but every now and then, they work and create an indelible impression on the viewer.

   I wouldn’t dare suggest that Wild, Wild Planet is a great science fiction movie. Not by any means. At the end of the day, here is a film too ambitious for its comparably low budget, making it simultaneously an example of clumsy filmmaking and unleashed creativity. That’s got to count for something.

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