TV mysteries

“THE BEARDED LADY.” An episode of Hetty Wainthropp Investigates. BBC, UK, 3 January 1996. (Season 1, Episode 1.) Patricia Routledge, Derek Benfield, Dominic Monaghan, John Graham-Davies. Based on characters in the book Missing Persons by David Cook (also co-screenwriter). Director: John Glenister.

   The book Missing Persons itself had been adapted for television nearly six years earlier (30 May 1990), also starring Patricia Routledge in the leading role. It was the pilot for a proposed series by Yorkshore TV, but the project went nowhere until it was finally picked up by the BBC in this series and later shown in the US on PBS.

   This first episode begins with Hetty Wainthropp waking up on her 60th birthday, married but with no pension of her own, and two years short of qualifying for one. She decides on the spot to go to work, and while on the job as a postal clerk, she finds herself intrigued by the mysterious death of a local homeless woman.

   Assisting her (reluctantly) is her elderly husband (Derek Benfield) and 17-year-old Geoffrey Shawcross (Dominic Monaghan), whose street smartness gives the new private detective agency a dimension that Hetty herself, with an inborn curiosity and a knack for putting details together, soon realizes she is lacking.

   The characters are wonderful, especially Benfield’s puzzled reaction to his wife’s new vocation. He is at first vehemently opposed, but he gradually (and grudgingly) finds himself assisting, while his wife and their new ward go off detecting, using buses and the occasional motor scooter for transportation.

   As for Hetty herself, she’s what I can only call a middle class Miss Marple, and quite active for her age. Her environment is that of a midsize city, crowded and a bit rundown, with plenty of ethnic minorities (definitely unlike Midsomer Murders). No scenic villages or large manors for her. What ever the opposite of the word “posh” is, that’s the word I think would fit best.

   While the detection is fun (and more than a little dangerous), this first case is, in all honesty, not very interesting (something to do with mollusks) and worse, more than a little muddled. The ending came much too abruptly, before all of the loose ends had been tied up, or so I thought. Some of the accents were tough to follow, though, so I admit that I may have missed something.

   But it is the characters that make or break shows like this one. It went on from this first episode for four seasons, so the original viewing audience seems to have become attached to them fairly quickly. All quibbles aside, both major and minor, I’m willing to watch more of them myself.

“PLAYING FOR THE ASHES.” An episode of The Inspector Lynley Mysteries. BBC television: Season Two, Episode One, 10 March 2003. Shown on PBS television in the US. Nathaniel Parker, Sharon Small, Lesley Vickerage, with Clare Swinburne, Phylllis Logan, Joe Duttine, Neve McIntosh, Curtis Flowers. Based on the novel by Elizabeth George. Director: Richard Spence.

   This is the first of the second season as shown in England in March 2003. It’s not quite clear to me yet, but I believe that each season has consisted of a month’s worth of four adaptations of Elizabeth George’s novels, following a one-shot pilot show which appeared in 2001. [Season Six, 2007, the final season, had only two episodes.]

   In the US they’ve been shown as part of the PBS Mystery! series, and this sample of size one was enough to show me that they’re hands-down better than 99% of the mystery and detective fare that US networks provide.

   Not that I have ever read any of the books they’re based on. They’re huge, and sometimes I intimidate easily. Truth be told, though, I tried one and (a rarity for me) I stopped after two or three chapters, thinking the book to be only one of those gloomy class-based rants where one’s socio-economic status is the primary factor in one’s standing with the rest of the populace.

   Well, it could be that I was right, but if I’m wrong, you can tell me. All I’ll do is to promise that I’ll go back and read another as soon as I can, either way. I have the feeling, though, since the paperback version of this particular book consists of over 700 pages of small print, and the TV movie is only 90 minutes long – well, they couldn’t have gotten it all in, could they? So they streamlined the story (I’m assuming) and concentrated mostly on the mystery – the mysterious death by fire of a soccer star who’d been having problems recently, domestic and otherwise.

   There are class differences between Lynley (Nathaniel Parker) and his partner in investigation, Sgt. Barbara Havers (Sharon Small), to be sure, emphasized by the fact that I had to concentrate quite a bit to follow the [lower class] accent of the chirpy Havers. The soccer star was black, his wife white (Swinburne) and their son Jimmy (Flowers) in this hugely dysfunctional family is an emotional mess, and he is the one who confesses to the murder. (Lynley doesn’t believe him.)

   The soccer star’s benefactor, the wealthy Miriam Whitelaw (Logan) has an estranged daughter Olivia who is even more of a mess, doing tricks on the street, doing drugs, and doing things for the pro-animal activists led by Chris Farraday (Duttine), who has taken Olivia in off the streets for his own reasons.

   So, OK, there’s still enough socio-economic differences between all of these people to make a pretty good book, even without the mystery, but the detective work is solid and well above average in competency, and that’s what will have me coming back for more. The rest is a bonus, and altogether it makes for an excellent hour-and-a-half’s worth of entertainment.

   Definitely a highlight: Neve McIntosh’s performance as the mostly distraught and definitely disturbed daughter. Somewhat puzzling: Lynley’s attraction to case profiler Helen Clyde (Lesley Vickerage). There’s no chemistry between them at all, and she makes her disagreements with him on the investigation seem as much personal as they are professional.

— September 2004

[UPDATE] 01-12-15.   Note that two additions to the original text, which appeared in one the paper editions of Mystery*File, which issue not known at this time, appear in brackets.

LINE OF DUTY. BBC-2, five 60-minute episodes, 26 June to 24 July 2012. Lennie James, Martin Compston, Vicky McClure, Neil Morrissey, Craig Parkinson, Gina McKee, Kate Ashfield. Screenwriter: Jed Mercurio. Directors: Douglas Mackinnon & David Caffrey.

   Lennie James plays DCI Tony Gates in this first series of a well-written police procedural drama produced by BBC Two in England. Gates is a highly decorated and widely admired police officer, a black bespectacled man, almost professorial in nature, happily married with two young daughters whom he adores. He has his place in the sun, and yet.

   As in all good noir dramas, for that is exactly what this is, what goes wrong? Firstly, Gates is having an affair with a former lover, who (we learn later) once jilted him but has come back into his life, with a vengeance. But secondly, what it isattracts the attention of AC-12, the British anti-corruption unit that’s the equivalent of Internal Affairs in the US, is merely a free sandwich at a lunch counter.

   From this small beginning, things escalate faster than Gates can control them. His extramarital lover asks him to cover up a hit-and-run accident she has had. A dog, she says at first, but Gates soon learns that it was her accountant who is dead. AC-12 also suspects that Gates’s success is due to “laddering,” which means he has been adding charges to criminals already in custody, thereby boosting his conviction numbers.

   Hot on Gates’s trail from the outside is DS Steve Arnott (Martin Compston) while working undercover at the same time from the inside is DC Kate Fleming (Vicky McClure), and soon the previously unshakeable Gates has fewer and fewer options, especially once it is learned that his lover had made some bad enemies, enemies who begin targeting Gates as well.

   There are lots of twists and turns in the plot before the five episodes are finished, with biggest surprises coming (not surprisingly) almost every time the 60 minutes allotted per episodes are up. One might think that DS Arnott, as the leading protagonist, would be the one the viewer is meant to side up with, but the young bantam-sized and policeman, newly transferred from an anti-terrorist squad which made a terrible mistake in a recent would-be raid, besides his obsession to bring down Gates, has issues of his own to work through, .

   It is Gates, really, whose fate is slowly twisting in the wind, who is the more fascinating, and yes, sympathetic character. The story has several layers, all of which are very well developed. It is difficult to not start the next episode in recently released set of DVDs as soon as the previous one has finished.

   The police work as shown seems real. Policemen need approval from superiors at each step of the way — there is little room for mavericks to go out on their own — paperwork is always there to be done, and risk assessment and the cost of overtime always have to be considered.

   But it’s the story of good versus evil, and the people who are caught up in it on a daily basis, that makes this series a success, and when it gets personal, as it does in also every minute of this 300 minute production, so much the better.

by Michael Shonk

GRAND JURY. Syndicated, 1959-60. Desilu Productions in association with National Telefilm Associates, Inc. / NTA Release. Cast: Lyle Bettger as Harry Driscoll, Harold J. Stone as John Kennedy, Douglas Dumbrille as Thomas Grant and Richard Travis as Bill Thompson. Created and produced by Mort Briskin.

   With Grand Juries in the news I thought it might be interesting to check out the forgotten TV series Grand Jury. A full-page ad for the syndicated series in Broadcasting (November 9,1959), Grand Jury was described as “…the new, exciting television, half-hour series…” and “This big-budget show offers the added prestige of “Public Service” program identification…” (Yes, the entire ad was that badly written.)

   The series featured two investigators for the Grand Jury. This allowed Harry Driscoll and John Kennedy to deal with all forms of crime. Other regulars featured the head of the Grand Jury, Thomas Grant and the Grand Jury lawyer, Bill Thompson. This was a typical syndicated crime drama of the era with simple plots, characters with little to no depth, humorless dialog, and stilted acting. While Desilu spent the money on sets and larger than usual guest cast, it never overcame the usual dull no surprises dramatic story problems of fifties TV half-hour crime dramas.

“Condemned.” (Title according to IMdb.) (1960) Written by Don Martin. Directed by Lee Sholem. Guest Cast: Wendell Holmes, Jack Orrison and Cindy Robbins. *** Investigators Driscoll and Kennedy hunt for the cause of a recent tenement fire that took twenty innocent lives.

   The sets are impressive and more interesting than many of the characters or actors. Together our heroes, bland and interchangeable Driscoll and Kennedy use standard police procedures and the villain’s stupidity to uncover the truth so the Grand Jury could bring those responsible for the fire to justice.

   The history of Grand Jury is not a simple one. According to Broadcasting (December 8, 1958) Desilu Productions had completed the pilot for Grand Jury six months before and it had nearly sold. But the buyer insisted on airing the series opposite of Desilu Theatre on CBS so Desilu turned the buyer down. The project was now back filming, but for only four episodes with hopes of selling it to a network as a January replacement series.

   March 31, 1959 issue of Broadcasting reported Grand Jury theme written by Ray Ellis would be released by MGM as a recording. This indicates the series was on the air, so January 1959 is the series most likely premiere date. It is also likely there was no interest from the networks for Grand Jury, as the series ended up syndicated through National Telefilm Associates.

   When Desilu announced its TV series lineup for the fall 1960-61 Season it included eighteen series one of which was Grand Jury (Broadcasting, May 23 1960). But soon Desilu would begin to have problems with NTA.

   The February 13, 1961 issue of Broadcasting reported that SAG (Screen Actors Guild) was pressuring Desilu to do something about the late residual payments from NTA for six series, Grand Jury, U. S. Marshall, Sheriff of Cochise, This Is Alice, Walter Winchell File and Official Detective.

   Broadcasting (May 1, 1961) reported the two companies had settled their differences. Distributor NTA agreed to buy the six Desilu produced series that had SAG residual problems. Grand Jury would end with 39 episodes completed and part of NTA syndication library.

   Several episodes are on YouTube at the moment. Two warnings – many of the episodes show up under more than one title (the episode above can be found as both “Episode 10” and “Episode 22”), and someone has copied the episodes and added them to its YouTube Channel. Those copies were done at the wrong speed so the voices are at a comically high pitch.

by Michael Shonk

Radio: 30 minutes. Blue Network: April 10 – December 29, 1943. Mutual Network: July 3, 1945 – April 30, 1950. NBC: May 7, 1950 – September 14, 1952. Mutual Network: January 5, 1953- November 27, 1954. Cast: Michael Waring was played by Barry Kroeger, James Meighan, Les Tremayne, Les Damon and George Petrie. (Source: On the Air: The Encyclopedia of Old-Time Radio by John Dunning, Oxford University Press, 1998.)

Television: 30 minutes. 1954, syndicated by NBC Films Division: A Bernard L. Schubert Production. Produced by Federal Telefilms Inc. Executive Producer: Buster Collier. Cast: Charles McGraw as Mike Waring.

   I have been unable to find an episode of the series with Barry Kroeger or George Petrie as Michael Waring, The Falcon. I have found a site that offers free episodes from the series and at least one example of James Meighan, Les Tremayne and Les Damon. Click on this link to find the episodes I mention here and more.

“Murder Is a Family Affair.” November 27, 1945; Mutual Network. Cast: James Meighan as Mike Waring, The Falcon *** The format of the series will remain the same for most of the series, from the opening phone call from a woman about their date that night to the epilog at the end explaining loose ends.

   The story has Mike and his girlfriend Nancy trying to protect the younger brother of a friend who had just been executed for murder.

   This is the only sample of Meighan I can find, but it shows the film’s influences on the series. Mike is described as a freelance detective but his dialog and actions are not far from Tom Conway’s Falcon. The relationship between Mike and Nancy sounds more than something that lasts one episode and more like The Falcon and Helen Reed (Wendy Barrie) from the films.

“Murder Is a Bad Bluff.” November 1, 1948; Mutual Network. Cast: Les Tremayne as Mike Waring, The Falcon. Produced by Bernard L. Schubert. Written by Jerome Epstein. Directed by Richard Lewis *** A woman hires Mike to check out the man she hopes to marry.

   As with most of the episodes, the mystery is weaken by a lack of suspects and logic. Nancy is gone and Waring is free to continue his alleged comedic womanizing ways, but now he is more likely than in the past to use his fists as well as his detective skills.

“The Case of Everybody’s Gun.” July 4, 1951; NBC. Cast: Les Damon as Mike Waring, The Falcon. Produced by Bernard L. Schubert. Written by Jerome Epstein. Directed by Richard Lewis. *** The Falcon is hired to check out a new charity. Shortly after Mike discovers it’s a con, his client is murdered.

   Damon’s Falcon would never make one think of George Sanders’ version in the films. He played your typical smart-ass radio PI complete with unfunny banter between him and the cops. The mysteries have not gotten any better. Check out spot 11:47 for a good example of 50s radio and TV product placement. Listen to Waring and the cop for the episode verbally spar as both discuss with announcer Ed Herhily the joys of Miracle Whip.

   The character’s continuity is a confused mess. The radio series credits Drexell Drake (Charles H, Huff) as the character’s creator. It also claims kinship to the films, the same films that give the character a different name (Gay Lawrence) and creator (Michael Arlen). Much has been written about this and I recommend you check out Kevin Burton Smith’s Thrilling Detective website for more.

   The radio version of The Falcon under producer Bernard L. Schubert would make one more major change.

“The Case of the Vanishing Visa.” June 19, 1952; NBC. Cast: Les Damon as The Falcon *** Weary of the PI life, Mike Waring retires. Mike had been a top intelligence agent during WWII and the Army decides he is just the man they need, whether Mike wants to volunteer or not. He is sent to Vienna to smuggle out a woman who had been working for our side.

   Becoming a spy didn’t mean there was not a crime or murder nearly every week for Mike to solve . The show, both on radio and TV, seemed determined to convince the audience there was little difference between the cases of a PI and an Army intelligence agent.

   The radio series producer Bernard L. Schubert would continue with the series as it moved over to TV. Schubert would also produce such TV series as The Amazing Mr. Malone and Topper.

   Broadcasting (June 15, 1953) reported Federal Telefilms Inc was finishing a TV pilot for The Falcon. It would be “presented by Bernard Schubert” and star Charles McGraw with script by Gene Wang and directed by George Waggner.

   Obviously the pilot sold, as Broadcasting (April 19.1954) would report about the new series: “Federal Telefilms Inc, Hollywood, this week (April 12) goes before the cameras at Goldwyn Studios with Adventures of the Falcon, a Bernard L. Schubert Production, which NBC Film Division will distribute under a recently signed contract, reportedly in excess of a million dollars. Buster Collier is executive producer on the 39 half-hour films starring Charles McGraw in the title role. Ralph Murphy is signed to direct the first two films and Paul Landres, the second two.”

   According to a full-page ad in Broadcasting (May 10,1954), Harry Joe Brown was another producer involved in the TV series. Brown is best remembered for his partnership with Randolph Scott and director Budd Boetticher in the “Ranown Westerns” films.

   The TV series continued The Falcon as an ex-PI turned Army intelligence agent. The casting of Charles McGraw turned Mike Waring into a more serious tough guy. As Army intelligence agent Mike took on cases all over the world from Western Europe to Macao to behind the Iron Curtain. One episode took place on the Atlantic Ocean. Mike would also take on cases all over the United States from Honolulu to New Jersey, from Chicago to New Orleans.

   Currently there are over 25 episodes of the TV series available to watch on YouTube. Here are three examples.

“Double Identity.”

Teleplay by William Leicester. Directed by Ralph Murphy. Guest Cast: Maralou Gray and Dan Seymour. *** Location: London. When the bad guys try to silence a freedom fighter by kidnapping his daughter, Mike poses as one of the bad guys in effort to rescue her.

   Predictable, but can be forgiven since the episode was filmed sixty years ago. The episode is a good example of TV’s Falcon’s womanizing side.

“Rare Editions.”

Teleplay by J. Benton Cheney. Directed by (name missing from video). Guest Cast: Nana Bryant, Charles Halton and Louis Jean Hexdt. *** Location: New York. A self-proclaimed helpless little old lady owns a bookstore that deals with rare books and illegal drugs.

   Entertaining episode with a nice ending.

“A Drug on the Market.”

Teleplay by Gene Wang. Directed by Paul Landres. Guest Cast: Suzanne TaFel, Kurt Katch and Fred Essler. *** Location: Vienna. Due to several hijackings, the black market is the only source for a drug that could save a little boy’s life and many others. Mike’s job is to find the drug and break the black market ring.

   Some unexpected twists highlight this episode.

   NBC Films promotions for the series compared McGraw and The Falcon to Jack Webb’s Dragnet that NBC Films was syndicating as Badge 714. In Broadcasting (October 4, 1954) NBC Films announced Badge 714 had sold to 172 stations, Dangerous Assignment was sold to 174, and Adventures of the Falcon was sold to only 34 stations.

Reviewed by JONATHAN LEWIS:         

DR. RENAULT’S SECRET. 20th Century Fox, 1942. J. Carrol Naish, John Shepperd, Lynne Roberts, George Zucco. Director: Harry Lachman.

“THE MASTER PLAN OF DR. FU MANCHU.” An episode of The Adventures of Dr. Fu Manchu. Original air date: 2 June 1956. Glen Gordon (Dr. Fu Manchu), Lester Matthews (Sir Dennis Nayland Smith) Clark Howat (Dr. John Petrie), Carla Balenda, Laurette Luez, John George. Guest Cast: Alan Dexter, Steven Geray (Mr. X). Based on characters created by Sax Rohmer. Director: William Witney.

   One of the most terrifying tasks (in a good way) that a successful horror/thriller director can do is to transport the viewer into a claustrophobic, eerie, and self-enclosed celluloid universe in which evil both lurks in the shadows and hides in plain sight. And you don’t even need an oversized budget to do it and to do it extraordinarily well.

   The trick, it would seem, is to keep the running time short, the atmosphere creepy, and the plot concerned with human physicality gone awry.

   Such is the case for two gems I watched this Halloween week.

   The first, Dr. Renault’s Secret, stars J. Carrol Naish and George Zucco in a cinematic admonition against tampering with the evolutionary demarcation that separates man from ape. Zucco portrays the eponymous Dr. Renault, an egotistical, sadistic, and downright creepy French scientist with a beautiful niece, Madeline (Lynne Roberts).

   Naish, in a chillingly sinister role, portrays Noel, Renault’s simian-like assistant, a man of unbridled rage and murderous intent. From the moment you see him lurk about on the screen, you know there’s something just so terribly not normal about this tragic character. John Sheppard rounds out the main players as Dr. Larry Forbes, Madeline Renault’s American fiancé.

   Directed by Harry Lachman, Dr. Renault’s Secret has that I-know-it-when-I see-it film noir aspect to it. Light and shadow are utilized to convey meaning, there are numerous camera shots from oddly distinct angles, and Noel can certainly be considered to be the film’s doomed protagonist, a man trapped in an out-of-control world.

   Also look for the noir-like mise-en-scene, the numerous staircases, doorways, and pathways that play prominent roles in conveying a story about Renault’s psychological descent into madness and Noel’s descent into savagery.

   In “The Master Plan of Dr. Fu Manchu,” an episode of the television show, The Adventures of Dr. Fu Manchu, a physician is pressured into performing plastic surgery on a man long thought dead but who is very much alive: Adolf Hitler.

   Fu Manchu, Satan incarnate, kidnaps Dr. Harlow Henderson, a friend of Petrie, and under the threat of torture, forces him to change the face of Hitler into the visage of an ordinary looking man, a person of unspeakable evil who could then safely hide in plain sight.

   Directed by William Witney, this thrilling episode has it all: murder by tarantula, Cold War paranoia, Nazis in an underground South Pacific hideaway, and the psychologically discomforting notion that physicians, with the use of surgical implements, could fundamentally re-alter a man’s physical identity.

   The last five minutes or so of this episode showcase Witney’s strength as a director of action sequences. After all, we get the thrill of witnessing Smith shoot and kill Hitler!

by Francis M. Nevins

   In the late Fifties and early Sixties private eye series on TV were a dime a dozen. One of the lesser known of these was released on DVD by Timeless Media not long ago and, never having watched it back in 1960 when it was first run, I decided to check it out more than half a century later.

   CORONADO 9 was a 30-minute syndicated series, released by Revue Studios, largely shot on location in San Diego and elsewhere, and starring 6’5″ Rod Cameron (1910-1983) as PI Dan Adams, a big beefy guy who conjures up images of a pro football player in middle age.

   What makes the series unusual is that its directors and writers went out of their way to avoid the tried-and-true elements we tend to associate with the PI genre except for the chases and fights, which we also associate with Westerns, and of course for the first-person narration, although almost every episode cheats with scenes outside the narrator’s presence. Adams is so untypical an eye that, assuming he has an office, we literally never see him in it.

   The main reason the series attracted me is that 16 of its 39 segments were directed by William Witney (1915-2002), the Hitchcock of the action film and my best friend in Hollywood. When it comes to visual excitement, most of Bill’s are not on a par with his great cliffhanger serials (one of which starred a much younger and leaner Rod Cameron) and Western features and episodes of TV series like BONANZA and THE WILD WILD WEST and THE HIGH CHAPARRAL, but the best of them are very good indeed.

   Whenever he could take over a locale and shoot his climax there, he did it with glee, commandeering a Coast Guard cutter for “The Day Chivalry Died” and the San Diego Zoo for “Obituary of a Small Ape,” just to give two examples. My favorite among Bill’s dozen-and-a-third is “Hunt Breakfast,” which despite its unintelligible title is a near-perfect film equivalent to those Fawcett Gold Medal paperback original novels that are central to the Fifties experience for many of us. In this episode Adams tries to save a friend and his family whose home has been invaded by three bank-robbing psychos, and the Witney visual fireworks run neck and neck with the violence.

   Of the 23 episodes not directed by Witney the most deserving of mention are at least four which were apparently shot on location in New Orleans and helmed by Frank Arrigo (1917-1977), who usually worked in Hollywood as an art director.

   The segments which take place overseas seem to have been filmed on the Revue back lot with help from stock footage and process plates. I certainly don’t believe that Arrigo shot “Film Flam” in Algiers, or “Caribbean Chase” in then newly Communist Cuba!

   Among the actors who appeared once or more often in the series are John Archer, Richard Arlen, Al Hodge (early live TV’s Captain Video), DeForest Kelley and Doug McClure. The veterans of Witney’s Western features and earlier TV films whom Bill found roles for in CORONADO 9 episodes include Jim Davis, Faith Domergue, Patricia Medina and Slim Pickens.

   Featured in two segments not directed by Witney is Lisa Lu, a well-known Asian actress best known over here as Hey Girl in HAVE GUN–WILL TRAVEL. A friend of mine who recently interviewed her tells me that in her eighties she is still acting.

   As so often when Timeless Media releases a TV series, there are a few technical problems with the transfer of CORONADO 9 to DVD. But if you can snag it for a decent price—it’s listed on for $17.99, and someone on the Web claims to have found it at Sam’s Club for $12.88 — it’s worth having.


   No one would rank Rod Cameron with the great cinematic PIs, like Bogart in THE MALTESE FALCON and THE BIG SLEEP, Ralph Meeker in KISS ME DEADLY and Jack Nicholson in CHINATOWN. But Liam Neeson comes within shouting distance as Lawrence Block’s recovering alcoholic and off-the-books investigator Matt Scudder in A WALK AMONG THE TOMBSTONES, which is based on Block’s 1992 novel of the same name and came to theaters a few weeks ago.

   Directed and written by Scott Frank and filmed noirishly in Brooklyn where the novel takes place, the movie has garnered mixed notices to date, with the reviewer for the Los Angeles Times going so far as to call it torture porn. I’ve seen nothing on the Web or in print that attempts to stack it up against the novel (except for one cyber-comment that I stumbled upon as I was finishing this column) so I might as well do the honors.

   Since the book is narrated by Scudder, nothing can happen outside his presence, although Block cheats a bit in the first chapter where lovely Francine Khoury is abducted on a Brooklyn street and, after payment of $400,000 ransom by her narcotics-trafficker husband, is returned cut up into fresh meat.

   Unrestricted by first-person narrative, Scott Frank shows us the psycho kidnappers at work here and later in ways Block couldn’t. The novel takes place in 1992, the film in 1999, so that we’re treated to a few allusions to the Y2K panic, which has nothing to do with the plot, and also to the sight of pay phones on the streets of New York City, which do figure in the plot and still existed, I assume, at the end of the 20th century but are rarae aves in today’s cell phone era.

   The film’s climax is something like Block’s but also quite different, in ways that I won’t reveal here. Between beginning and end Frank touches base with Block only on rare occasions.

   A host of the novel’s characters make no appearance: Scudder’s wealthy call-girl lover, the teen-age computer hackers, the various cops Scudder hits up for information. Although one of the perps’ victims in the novel survives her ordeal and gets to talk with Scudder, in the movie there are no surviving women. Indeed two important male characters make it through the novel alive but wind up dead in the film, and several other men in the movie, like the obese groundskeeper and the DEA agents, have no counterparts in the book.

   The bloody incident that made Scudder a boozer is never mentioned in the novel but is dramatized for us in a flashback at the movie’s start, with the difference that Scott Frank morphs it into the catalyst for Scudder’s giving up the sauce and joining AA.

   The streetwise black teen who calls himself TJ has a big role in both novel and movie but Frank’s version of the character unlike Block’s is a vegetarian and a victim of sickle cell anemia, although Frank mercifully spares us the rhyming patter and much of the it-be-rainin-out jivetalk of TJ according to Block.

   Ironically enough, two of Frank’s alterations in the storyline seem to have been expressly rejected by Block. Late in both versions comes a scene in Brooklyn’s Green-Wood Cemetery where a million dollars, much of it counterfeit, is exchanged for the 14-year-old girl who is the psychos’ latest victim.

   In the novel the exchange comes off without incident, and Scudder specifically tells the girl’s family (on page 269 of the hardcover edition) that “it’s crazy to get into a firefight in a graveyard at night”. That craziness Scott Frank embraces, letting the bullets fly and the cars screech and crash away as in a thousand other action flicks.

   After Block’s badguys have fled the cemetery, TJ tells Scudder (on page 286): “[I]f this here’s a movie, what I do is slip in the back [of the psychos’ vehicle] an’ hunker down ‘tween the front an’ back seats. They be puttin’ the money in the trunk and sittin’ up front, so they ain’t even gone look in the back. Figured they’d go back to their house…an’ when we got there I just slip out an’ call you up an’ tell you where I’m at. But then I thought, TJ, this ain’t no movie, an’ you too young to die.”

   Well, what Scott Frank wrote and directed is a movie and that’s exactly what his TJ does and how Neeson as Scudder finds the perps’ home base.

   What Larry Block thinks of the picture I have no idea. It does capture something of the spirit of the Scudder series, and Neeson’s performance is excellent, thanks in part to his wisely not attempting a New York accent.

   Most of Frank’s innovations help make the movie cinematic in ways that the dialogue-driven novel wasn’t and couldn’t have been. In the same league with THE MALTESE FALCON and THE BIG SLEEP and CHINATOWN it isn’t, and the moments of extreme violence, especially to women, are integral to the storyline but may turn off potential viewers. (I saw it with a Vietnam veteran who later told me he had to close his eyes during some scenes.)

   To anyone wondering whether to see it or not, all I can say is: Hit the Web, do your homework, make (or as the Brits would say, take) a decision.

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