REVIEWED BY DAVID VINEYARD:


APPOINTMENT WITH DANGER. Paramount Pictures, 1950. Alan Ladd, Phyllis Calvert, Paul Stewart, Jan Sterling, Jack Webb, Stacy Harris, Henry Morgan, George J. Lewis, David Wolfe. Screenplay by Richard Breen and Warren Duff. Directed by Lewis Allen.

  “You don’t have to build up to a murder, one good try and you’re there.”

  This exceptionally well done procedural noir set against the background of a post office investigation stars Alan Ladd as postal inspector Al Goddard, a tough no-nonsense investigator with a heart of lead, who is plunged into a dangerous undercover assignment when nun Sister Augustine (Phyllis Calvert) witnesses two killers, Joe Regas and George Soderquist (Jack Webb and Henry Morgan) dump the body of Post Office investigator Harry Gruber in an alley in La Porte, Indiana.

  The case expands as Goddard has to track down the nun and once he finds her, find the man she saw and spoke to in the dark alley, Soderquist. That’s complicated because Goddard begins to have human feeling about the nun and when Regas, who fears she saw him, tries to kill her, he starts to take things personally.

  Meanwhile, following the late Gruber’s lead, Ladd is led to Paul Ferrer (Stacy Harris), a Post Office truck driver, and a heist planned by Earl Boetticher (Paul Stewart) a hotel owner, Regas, and a team hoping to exploit a million dollar hole in Post Office security during a transfer of funds in Gary, Indiana. While still searching for Soderquist, who Regas has killed in the meantime, Ladd goes undercover hoping to nail the gang for Gruber’s murder or catch them in the act.

  Jan Sterling has a nice bit as Boetticher’s none too loyal girlfriend, Dodie: “You can put strings on good women or bad women, but you can’t put strings on lazy women.” She is at once slightly off key, a little dopey, and too smart for the men around her.

  Goddard (listening to music with her in her room): So that’s ‘Slow Train to Memphis?’

  Dodie (standing near him with a lazy sway: Hmm-mmm. You like it.”

  Goddard (taking her in his arms): It’s already given me a lift.

  As the deadline for the heist closes Goddard finds himself suddenly alone and one complication after another closing his door to get out alive including when Regas, obsessed that the nun saw him, kidnaps Sister Augustine.

  Regas: You look as if you lost your best friend.

  Goddard: I’m my best friend.

  Regas: That’s what I mean.

  This is the one, of course, where future Dragnet team Webb and Morgan play a pair of killers. Morgan’s fairly short-lived as a simple minded type who Webb kills with a pair of brass booties, all he has left of the son he hasn’t seen since infancy: “Why’d you do that Joe, I thought you liked me?” he asks just before Webb finishes him off.

  You may find yourself having to suppress and inappropriate laugh at one point when Webb impersonates a cop to lure Calvert into his car, but it isn’t the fault of the film. It doesn’t help he’s named Joe either.

  Well-acted all around, with Ladd, Stewart, Sterling, Webb, and in a short bit, Morgan outstanding, a sharp script by Richard Breen and Warren Duff, good location shooting and set pieces (the scene in the handball court is often copied and expanded on), and solid if straight forward direction by Lewis Allen, Appointment With Danger, is a tough smart noir film that lets Ladd humanize believably during the course of the film without getting too sticky or sentimental. There is more than enough suspense, and Sterling has a great final scene any film noir femme fatale would kill for, as an unsentimental survivor.

  It’s not top noir, but it is well above average and moves smoothly and smartly, with good dialogue to keep the thing lubricated.

I know very little about this pop rock group that was around for a short while in the early 1970s. They produced only one self-titled LP, which includes this song, written by Jesse Colin Young:

Members of the group are Michael Ballew (guitar, vocals), Danny Wilder (bass, piano, vocals), Lucky Floyd (drums, vocals), Mack Tubb (guitar, vocals).

Reviewed by JONATHAN LEWIS:


VERA CRUZ. United Artists, 1954. Gary Cooper, Burt Lancaster, Denise Darcel, Cesar Romero, Sarita Montiel, George Macready, Jack Elam, Ernest Borgnine, Morris Ankrum, Charles Buchinsky. Director: Robert Aldrich.

   Films in which American or European mercenaries show up in Mexico at a time of revolutionary change and hire out their guns to one side or the other, or both simultaneously, can be considered a proper subgenre of the Western. Alternatively, they have all the hallmarks of adventure films: an exotic locale, a daring protagonist on a quest fraught with danger, a love interest that develops out of said journey, and, of course, some form of priceless object or treasure that the protagonist hopes to acquire.

   As fans of the Western genre know all too well, there are many – perhaps too many – Spaghetti Westerns, most of them made between 1965 and 1975, that fall into the “mercenaries in Mexico adventure film” subgenre. Released in 1954, the Robert Aldrich directed film Vera Cruz may rightfully considered a pioneer work in the aforementioned subgenre to which I just alluded.

   Both gritty and lavish, Vera Cruz takes some effort and patience to fully appreciate. Upon first glance, the rather cynical story isn’t particularly complex, but it’s got a lot going on underneath the surface that merits attention. Indeed, Francois Truffaut himself was both a critic and admirer of the film’s narrative structure in which motifs and sequences, such as Mexican revolutionaries surrounding the mercenaries and one partner rescuing another, are repeated throughout the film.

   In the wake of the American Civil War, former Confederate colonel and Louisiana plantation owner Ben Trane (Gary Cooper) ventures south to Mexico in search of profit. He’s willing to hire himself out to the highest bidder in the Franco-Mexican War in which Emperor Maximilian I (George Macready) is facing down a Juarista nationalist peasant revolt led General Ramirez (Morris Ankrum). Trane ends up joining forces with Joe Erin (Burt Lancaster), a cynical, borderline nihilist gunfighter eager to double cross anyone who gets between him and his money.

   The plot follows the exploits of the two men as they guide a convoy filled with gold from Maximilian’s lavish palace to Vera Cruz. Along for the journey are a French princess (Denise Darcel) and a Maximilian loyalist (Cesar Romaro). Each is not exactly whom they seem to be, leading to a series of plots and double crosses, some of which do get a bit wearing on the viewer.

   What the film lacks in cohesion, it more than makes up for in sheer spectacle. There is something just so, well, cinematic about the movie. Indeed, the final battle sequence in which the mercenaries, along with their newfound Juarista allies, invade a government outpost is exceedingly well staged and photographed. The same goes for the final dramatic showdown between the two mercenaries. In a movie like this, there can only be one man left standing. One last matter for Western fans: look for Ernest Borgnine, Charles Bronson, and Jack Elam in supporting roles. They are great as expected.

CHARLES KNIEF – Emerald Flash. St. Martin’s, hardcover, April, 1999; paperback, May 2000.

   Opening paragraph:

   The first time I saw Margo Halliday she was stark naked, running for all she was worth down a Honolulu alley in the middle of the night.

   Telling the story is ex-SEAL and now Hawaii-based private eye John Caine. Emerald Flash is the third of four recorded adventures.

   Chasing Margo Halliday is her ex-husband:

   The big man jogged past and I dropped him with a flying kick, He went down easy but refused to let go of the pistol, so I broke his wrist and he gave it up. All the fight went out of him. He deflated like an octopus brought up on a lure and dropped into the bottom of a canoe, when it knew it was going to die.

   Caine doesn’t see Margo again until seven months later, when she is accused of killing her ex-husband. Not only that, but hard on her trail is a gang of Colombian thugs, and for good reason. They think she is somehow in possession of a fortune in stolen emeralds. She remembers Caine, and she calls on him for help.

   He does, but it isn’t easy. I was reminded of John D. MacDonald in a couple of ways, not only the obvious one, but Caine also has a philosophy of life very similar to that of a certain Travis McGee. But there is a difference: no matter how close he and Margo get as man and woman, they sleep in separate beds, and none of the McGee books had the same amount of firepower that is called upon in this one: rifles, grenades, Glocks, even an elephant gun.

   Somewhat toward the end of the book:

   It had been a year of extremes. I felt good and fit. My wounds all had healed. I had gone up against powerful enemies and had vanquished them all, including the one who had ordered my destruction.

   And now it was over.

   It’s not a perfect book. Too much of the story depends on things that happened in earlier ones, for example, and a long, lengthy portion of the book consists of Caine and Margo on the run, which with all of the aforementioned firepower is exciting enough for two or three books, but crammed into just this one, it somehow managed to slow the pace down rather than enhance it.

   On the other hand, when things are going a little slower, Caine manages to get along with a brain as well as brawn, and is as quick with a quip as Jon Stewart on a good night, and that’s very good indeed.

       The John Caine series –

Diamond Head (1996)
Sand Dollars (1998)
Emerald Flash (1999)
Silversword (2001)

STOP ME BEFORE I KILL! Falcon/Hammer Films, UK, 1960, as The Full Treatment. Columbia Pictures, US, 1961. Claude Dauphin, Diane Cilento, Ronald Lewis, Françoise Rosay. Screenplay: Val Guest and Ronald Scott Thorn, based on the latter’s novel The Full Treatment. Director: Val Guest.

   There is a quite a bit that may be of interest to regular readers of this blog in this film, recently released as one of a box set of non-horror Hammer films. The cinematography by Gilbert Taylor is clear and crisp, in stunning black-and-white, and the performances by all are as top notch as the script will allow them to be, especially that of leading lady Diane Cilento.

   She plays the wife of a race car driver (Alan Colby, played by Ronald Lewis) who was in an auto accident on an ordinary highway while the two of them were on their honeymoon together. He’s recovered but is having (apparently) trouble in bed with her. While in France, then back to England, they call on the services of a psychiatrist named Prade (Claude Dauphin).

   The problem is more than a mere sexual dysfunction, however, and here’s where that rather title of the film comes in. What Colby also has to fight is a compulsion to kill his wife, mostly by strangulation, either manually or with whatever wire in the kitchen is handy. They also live in an apartment with, for no other apparent reason, a set of old surgical tools.

   Commenters on IMDb, some of them, have complained about the length of the movie, and suggest that it should have been shorter in order to maintain the level of suspense the producer and director of the film intended it to have. They, the commenters, are right, but the US version, the one I’ve just watched, is already missing 15 minutes from its original two hour length in the UK.

   And what’s worse, one key scene is missing, one referred to later as the shower scene, in which (apparently) the newly married couple try to make love, and can’t. The next scene, also crucial to the movie, takes place at a dinner party being held by Prade, where Colby takes serious offense at several of Prade’s jabbing and jesting remarks.

   Strangely, though, a scene in which Diane Cilento’s character is seen swimming in the nude is left intact, but filmed discreetly at a distance so as not to bother (?) the censors.

   But the major problem is that, even by cutting the film (or script) down to size, there is no real suspense. Everything is well foreshadowed in advance (is that redundant?), and the viewer’s only obligation is to fit all the pieces together as they occur into the ending that is already well established ahead of time.

SELECTED BY JONATHAN LEWIS:


GASTON LEROUX “The Woman with the Velvet Collar.” First published in English in Weird Tales, October 1929. Reprinted in Startling Mystery Stories, Spring 1969, and in several anthologies of weird fiction since. Originally published in French as “La femme au collier de velours” in 1924.

   Although it took me a while to become fully immersed in Gaston Leroux’s “The Woman With the Velvet Collar,” by the story’s end I was left with the indelible impression that I had just read a well-crafted horror tale. First appearing in English translation in Weird Tales, Leroux’s conte cruel transports the reader to Corsica, a land known for its vendettas and its cultural and physical separateness from mainland France.

   “The Woman With the Velvet Collar” unfolds with a discussion between two sailors, a sea captain named Gobert and his friend, Michel. The two men are discussing Corsican vendetta stories, with Gobert assuring Michel that he has a story that is far more horrifying than any run of the mill vendetta. The tale further unfolds as Gobert begins to tell a story within a story, about his experiences in Corsica in which he encountered a ghost like woman dressed all in black and with a black velvet ribbon around her neck.

   As it turns out, the woman was named Angeluccia and she was married to a local Corsican official. But she kept a secret from her husband! She was secretly romantically involved with her cousin, one of her husband’s employees. Without giving too much of the plot away, let’s just say that the guillotine makes a bloody appearance in this fiendishly clever tale about what happens when a costume party in which Angeluccia dresses up as Marie Antoinette turns into the beginning of a dark foray into the supernatural.

Bibliographic Note:   Captain Michel also appeared in three additional stories:

       Le noël du petit Vincent-Vincent (1924); The Crime on Christmas Night (1930).
       Not’ Olympe (1924); The Mystery of the Four Husbands (1929).
       L’auberge épouvantable (1925); The Inn of Terror (1929).

THE BACKWARD REVIEWER
William F. Deeck


ELIZABETH CADELL – Shadows on the Water. William Morrow, hardcover, 1958. First published in the UK by Hodder & Stoughton, hardcover, 1958, as Shadow on the Water by Harriet Ainsworth.

   Kate Verney, widow, is sailing to South America to become acquainted with her new grandson and maybe to save him from being christened Theobald. Her roommate on the ship is Lindy Barron, who along with her brother, Rex, is going to Lisbon to live with her father, William Barron, an arrogant, physically attractive businessman with a weakness for females.

   Upon arrival at Lisbon, the group discovers that Barron is missing, presumed dead after the horse he was riding fell off a cliff. Later Barron turns up, saying that someone had stretched a wire across his favorite riding path. Other attempts are made on his life.

   Since Kate’s passport is stolen while she is ashore at Lisbon, she cannot continue her voyage. Which is a good thing, for someone has to keep an eye on the Barron children’s welfare — and William Barron’s, despite his protests.

   Though disappointing to me because it did not have the engaging humor of Cadell’s The Corner Shop, this book is nonetheless a good example of the romantic-suspense novel, featuring a heroine a little longer in the tooth than usual. Cadell’s goal is merely to entertain, and she is for the most part successful.

— Reprinted from MYSTERY READERS JOURNAL, Vol. 6, No. 2, Summer 1990, “Vacation for Murder.”


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