Mystery movies




TONY ROME. 20th Century Fox, 1967. Frank Sinatra, Jill St. John, Richard Conte, Sue Lyon, Gena Rowlands, Simon Oakland, Jeffrey Lynn, Lloyd Bochner, Rocky Graziano, Shecky Greene. Title song: “Tony Rome,” written by Lee Hazelwood, performed by Nancy Sinatra. Screenplay by Richard Breen, based on the novel Miami Mayhem by Anthony Rome (Marvin H. Albert). Directed by Gordon Douglas.

   Cop-turned-private detective Tony Rome (Frank Sinatra) lives on a powerboat in Miami. In a captain’s hat and a yellow turtle-neck, he is enjoying the sunshine when he gets a call from Ralph Turpin. The pair were partners in the police but now hate each other. Now a “hotel dick,” Turpin has discovered a young, drunk woman lying unconscious in one of the rooms. He and the manager want her out before the police start bothering them and are ready to pay Rome for the service.

   Diana Pines, it turns out, is not just anyone, but the daughter of millionaire construction magnate Rudy Kosterman and her father is grateful when Rome brings her home. She has been acting strangely lately and he wants Rome to find out why. Meanwhile, Diana discovers her diamond pin has gone missing, believes it must have been stolen while she was drunk and wants it back. Now hired by the whole family, Rome investigates and soon finds the first of several dead bodies…


   One of the interesting things about the 1960s is seeing how the more established stars handled it. Pretty much all of culture changed and many had to adapt. In the wake of The Beatles, Sinatra was not considered cool anymore and his film career faltered. He had always been the most credible of singers-actors, but Marriage on the Rocks (1965) and Assault on a Queen (1966) both failed at the box office while The Naked Runner (1967) received poor notices. In response, Sinatra turned to the kind of part which would fill out his remaining filmography.

   Around this time, the film noir genre was making a minor resurgence, with Bulitt, Harper, P.J., Madigan and Marlowe. These films tried to recapture the grim and darkly glamourous world of The Big Sleep (1946) and Out of the Past (1947), which themselves were trying to evoke the hardboiled setting of the novels they were often adapting.


   Sinatra was one of the first to get on board with this. Based   on Miami Mayhem, a now-forgotten paperback original by writer Marvin H. Albert, Tony Rome cast him as a private detective in the wise-cracking Phillip Marlowe mold, a jaded yet honourable man in a disreputable business.

   It’s not surprising that he fits the part. Many of Sinatra’s best songs  –  “One for My Baby,” “In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning” – conjure the kind of bars in which you would expect to find Sam Spade and Mike Hammer, while his trademark trilby made him look like them.

   The film itself is colourful, both aesthetically and otherwise. The Floridian setting gives it a look which is quite at odds with the shadows and neon found elsewhere in the genre (though both the Travis McGee and Mike Shayne books were based around detectives in the Sunshine State).


   The deliberate way in which director Gordon Douglas focuses on young, bikini-clad women make it seem as though the Bond films were an equal inspiration. Nancy Sinatra – who sang the theme to You Only Live Twice the same year – performs the obligatory cheesy theme here while Diamonds Are Forever’s Jill St. John is Ann Archer, a three-time-divorcee whose main problem is being bored between parties.

   Indeed, there is a seediness which is never less than overt as Rome meets junkies, prostitutes, strippers, blackmailers, gangsters and, of course, a murderer. It is balanced, however, with the usual sardonic humour which, in fairness, is genuinely amusing. There are many great lines here (“You’re not a family, you’re a bunch of people who live at the same address!”).

   The juxtaposition between the grim underworld and the sunny scenes of cheery impudence can be a little jarring, however, most notably in a running gag involving a honeymooning couple.


   The plot is convoluted in the way that is expected from all private eye movies. Like most, it begins with a routine job that quickly gets more complex – something of which even Rome is aware. He is independently hired by each of the Kostermans and finds enough skeletons to fill a cemetery.

   In-between times, he gets into the usual fights and chases, though they are more frequent in the first hour than the second, which drags noticeably. The film could certainly have been cut by as much as half an hour, such is the languid pace and extraneous shots of the scenery, which doesn’t always involve the weather.

   As is the way with these things, the script has more names than a phone book and it is not always easy to match them. The motive, however, is an excellent one and clears up a story that, by the end, gets muddier by the moment.

   An entertaining time-waster, Tony Rome makes up for its inconsistent tone and puzzling plot with Sinatra’s familiar, nonchalant charm and an unapologetic persistence in reminding you of the year it was made. A moderate hit at the box office, a sequel Lady in Cement) and Sinatra’s only, followed a year later.




WILKIE COLLINS – The Woman in White. Low, UK, hardcover, 1860. Harper, US, hardcover, 1860. First published in serial form in 1859–60, appearing in Charles Dickens’ magazine All the Year Round (UK) and Harper’s Weekly (USA)

THE WOMAN IN WHITE. Warner Brothers, 1948. Alexis Smith, Eleanor Parker, Sydney Greenstreet, Gig Young, Agnes Moorehead, John Abbott and John Emery. Screenplay by Stephen Morehouse Avery, from the novel by Wilkie Collins. Directed by Peter Godfrey.

   The ending is a bit cumbersome, but Wilkie Collins’ novel is a genuine Victorian masterpiece of plot and counter-plot, with lively characterizations throughout and a plot that defies synopsis.

   Briefly, the tale unspun in Woman in White involves Laura Farlie, a lovely young heiress, her almost-as-lovely and much-smarter companion, Marian Halcombe, and a mysterious young woman who resembles Laura, wandering about dressed in white — hence the title of the piece.

   All three ladies become enamored to one degree or another with art teacher Walter Hartright, but all three become the intended prey of the insidious Count Fosco and the ruthless Sir Percival Glyde.

   What follows is a panoply of melodrama, with false heirs and heiresses, secret agreements, lingering illness, the odd murder and involuntary impersonation, secret societies, death by fire….

   The wonder of it is that under Collins’ skillful pen it all reads much better than it sounds. The smooth prose and Dickensian characters kept me enthralled with this long after my willing suspension of disbelief had crashed to the floor.

   I should also add that among the characters, Count Fosco comes off the most compellingly. Rotund, loquacious, charming and venomous, he almost seems as if, writing in 1859, Collins foresaw the coming of Sydney Greenstreet and wrote the part just for him.

   Small wonder then that Greenstreet appeared as Count Fosco in the Warners film of 1948. Indeed, he is the linchpin of a sumptuous production with an excellent cast, despite the truncations of plot, and the unfortunate miscasting of Gig Young as the lead (A capable actor, but try to picture Bogart in Pride and Prejudice to get my drift.) the film is splendidly faithful to the tone and feel of Collins’ classic. Agnes Moorhead, John Abbott and John Emory sparkle in supporting roles, and Sydney Greenstreet was born to play the porcine, mellifluous Count Fosco. The fast resolution is a definite improvement on the book.

   But I found myself most intrigued by the happy ending, which (WARNING!) finds our hero and heroines vaguely landing in some sort of merry menage-a-trois. Oddly apt in view of Colins’ feelings about marriage (He spent his later years in the company of two ladies.) but surprising in a Hollywood film of its time.


THE CLOUDED YELLOW. Carillon Films, UK, 1950. Jean Simmons, Trevor Howard, Sonia Dresdel, Barry Jones, Kenneth More. Director: Ralph Thomas. Currently available on YouTube here.

   Booted out of the British Secret Service after a long career but one failed mission, the only work ex-Major David Somers (Trevor Howard) can find is that of cataloguing the butterfly collection of the husband half of a couple living out in the country. (The title of the film refers to a particular specimen of butterfly.) It’s a relaxing job, but not quite what Somers was looking for.

   One mitigating factor, though, is the couple’s niece, Sophie Malraux (played to perfection by the always exquisitely beautiful Jean Simmons), who has been living with them since she was six. As the couple confide to Somers, the reason she often acts in such a “muddled” fashion, she that she was the first on the scene when she found the dead bodies of her parents, a murder-suicide, he is told.

   Then when the couple’s gamekeeper is found murdered, all the evidence points to Sophie. Not believing it for a minute, the obviously smitten ex-major and Sophie go on the run, all around England and constantly only a step or two ahead of the authorities. It is here, of course, where many reviewers bring up Alfred Hitchcock as an obvious point of comparison, and The 39 Steps in particular.

   Not so fast, I said to myself, however. The Clouded Yellow is good but certainly not that good. It’s fun to watch, but the first third moves awfully slowly, and the girl-and-guy-on-the-run story that follows has plot holes galore – not serious ones, but if you’re fond of picking nits in the movies you watch, you will find lots of nits to pick in this one.

   Please don’t take this comment too much to heart. Both the acting and the photography are fine, and any movie with Jean Simmons in it is well worth your time. My time, anyway, any time.




VANISHING ACT. CBS / Richard Levinson–William Link Productions, 04 May 1986. Mike Farrell, Margot Kidder, Fred Gwynne, Graham Jarvis, Elliott Gould. Teleplay by Richard Levinson & William Link, based on a play by Robert Thomas. Director: David Greene. Can currently be seen on YouTube.

   Harry Kenyon (Mike Farrell) is on his honeymoon in the Rocky Mountains after a whirlwind romance in Las Vegas with a woman named Christine Prescott. But their wedded bliss is soon interrupted and Harry reports her disappearance to Lieutenant Rudameyer (Elliott Gould), a New Yorker more interested in eating a corn beef sandwich specially imported from a delicatessen on West 87th Street. It seems to be a fuss over nothing as Christine (Margot Kidder) is quickly found – only Harry doesn’t recognize her and refuses to believe she’s his wife!

   Christine is convincing, however, and knows everything about both herself and Harry. Her reasons for disappearing are also plausible and readily supported by local priest Father Macklin (Fred Gwynne). Adding to his frustration, Harry can’t be sure whether the woman is crazy or a confidence trickster, though his frustrated protests make everyone else think it is he who is unhinged.

   This seems even more likely as the priest dies before his eyes and later reappears. Soon, Harry learns the truth of the affair, but this only plunges him even deeper into a conspiracy of which there is no escape.


   This was a made-for-television film featuring a line-up of familiar faces headed by M*A*S*H actor Mike Farrell. He brings an endearing everyman quality to the role of Harry, a fellow who veers from disputatious confusion to occasional bursts of triumph as he struggles to prove himself right.

   Interestingly, unlike similar films, we aren’t asked to question his sanity. Margot Kidder (Lois Lane in the Christopher Reeve-starring Superman films) is on sparkling form and veers effectively from innocently concerned spouse to roguish femme fatale. Herman Munster himself, Fred Gwynne, also appears as a politely perplexed priest who may know more than he’s letting on.

   Elliot Gould, meanwhile, is reliably excellent, appearing here as his 1970s film career (including a shot at playing Phillip Marlowe in The Long Goodbye) had shifted to the small screen where a couple of failed sitcoms led him to several one-off television dramas. As Rudameyer, he is not a million miles away from that other ramshackle lieutenant, Columbo, also from teleplay writers William Link and Richard Levinson.


   This film could have fit snugly into that series. It is, however, a remake of two previous TV films and a tangled list of other antecedents including the brilliant British noir Chase a Crooked Shadow, a couple of 1940s radio plays and a French play titled, among other things, Trap for a Lonely Man. It’s this which is officially credited for Vanishing Act, though all are plausible influences. It has also sprouted several foreign language remakes, most recently the 2019 Malaysian horror thriller Misteri Dilaila, which didn’t acknowledge this heritage.

   Anyone familiar with these versions may recognize the final twist as a variation on a theme, but for others it will be genuinely jaw-dropping, surely leaving them interested, maybe even outright eager, to see the film again in order to espy any hidden significances. With the exception of one or two minor holes which could have been easily exorcized, the plot holds together admirably well, stocking itself with surprises, mild comedy and an army of red herrings. A pleasingly puzzling mystery, this is one of the best films of its kind.

Rating: ****



UNDER COVER OF NIGHT. MGM, 1937. Edmund Lowe, Florence Rice, Nat Pendleton, Henry Daniell, Sara Haden, Dean Jagger. Screenplay: Bertram Millhauser. Director: George B. Seitz.

        Under Cover of Night features Edmund Lowe as a classy cop who matches wits for 24 hours with assorted ambitious academics competing to be named Department Head at a prestigious University. One of them is not above murder, and none of them is above lying, stealing or sleeping around to achieve their ends.

   This was written by Bertram Millhauser, who penned some of the better Sherlock Holmes efforts over at Universal, and here manages to make his cast both believably flawed and entirely sympathetic — with the exception of Henry Daniell, who rises to new depths of Nastiness as the Villain of the Piece, a prof who callously tosses a puppy out the window to provoke his wife (on whom he has been cheating while taking credit for her research) into a heart attack.

— Reprinted from A Shropshire Sleuth #73, September 1995.


X MARKS THE SPOT. Republic Pictures, 1942. Damian O’Flynn as PI Eddie Delaney, Helen Parrish, Dick Purcell, Jack La Rue, Neil Hamilton, Robert Homans, Anne Jeffreys, Dick Wessel. Co-screenwriter: Stuart Palmer. Director: George Sherman. The movie can currently be seen online here.

   Just two days before he’s off to help fight the war, the father of PI Eddie Delaney is killed while on duty as an on-the-beat policeman. Grieving, Delany is given a chance to do something about it when he’s hired by a man to look into a case of trucks being hijacked while loaded with tires. Rubber being at a premium in the early days of the war, this is no trivial matter.

   And besides working on the case, Delany senses a connection between it and his father’s death. His dad, he thinks, stumbled across something he shouldn’t have, and it cost him his life.

   That’s about the extent of the plot, but the 52 minutes of running time is filled to the brim. Besides at least three deaths (I may have lost count), a budding romance between Delaney and Linda Ward (Helen Parrish) as one of the girls working at the headquarters of a citywide telephone jukebox system, and of course she helps him out with the case he’s on.

   As a detective story, the screenwriters had a tough job keeping the killer’s identity a secret, with all of the suspects being killed off, one by one. By the time the last reel is shown, there are no suspects left.

   The cast consists of players who have no name recognition today, and they may not have even back then. I sometimes wonder if they might not even be recognized by people such as ourselves who watch movies such as this one and go look them up on IMDb as soon as the movie is over.

   Centralized telephone jukebox systems have come up for discussion on this blog before, that so happening as part of my review of Swing Hostess (1944), starring Martha Tilton, and the comments following. Here’s the link:      Click here.

   More details on such an operation and better photos from X Marks the Spot can be found here:      Click here.




PHILIP MacDONALD – The List of Adrian Messenger. Col. Anthony Gethryn #12. Doubleday, US, hardcover, 1959. Bantam A2186, US, paperback, 1961; #F2643, 1963. Herbert Jenkins, UK, hardcover, 1960.

THE LIST OF ADRIAN MESSENGER. Universal-International, 1963. Kirk Douglas, George C. Scott, Dana Wynter, Jacques Roux, Herbert Marshall, Clive Brook, Gladys Cooper Guest Stars: Tony Curtis, Burt Lancaster, Frank Sinatra, Robert Mitchum. Screenplay by Anthony Veiller. Directed by John Huston. Available on DVD.

   The tale hinges, like so much in humanity’s sorry history, on a piece of paper. In this case no broken treaty or injudicious epistle from one Personage to another, but a slip upon which Adrian Messenger wrote the names and addresses and occupations of ten men.

   When writer Adrian Messenger asks a friend to use his influence to look into a disparate list of men from all walks of life and all parts of the United Kingdom it seems like nothing but a whim, but shortly after, when Messenger is killed in a plane crash the friend in question turns to Anthony Gethryn to look into the list, almost immediately one fact arises, all ten men died of untimely accidents, including Adrian Messenger, making for a strangely coincidental eleven accidental deaths seemingly unrelated deaths.

   Semi-amateur sleuth Col.Anthony Gethryn (The Rasp, Warrant for X) suspects something, and with the help of one of the survivors, a Frenchman, Raoul St. Denis, who coincidentally was once a member of the French Resistance run by Gethryn anonymously in the war, it soon becomes apparent Adrian Messenger was onto something sinister and deadly.

   At first Gethryn’s friend at the Yard, Lucas, and his old ally Inspector Pike, think Anthony is jumping at conclusions, but between a dying message left by Messenger in the lifeboat with St. Denis, and an expanding investigation it becomes clear there is a killer on the loose, one who has carefully over the years eliminated anyone who might know him for an as yet unknown reason.

   A series, if not serial, killer who eventually tallies sixty seven murders over much of the globe, all disguised as accidents, a criminal genius who only has two more deaths to go, an old man and a fourteen year old boy, the Marquis of Gleneyre and his grandson, heirs to a considerable fortune.

   Worse, there may be nothing the law can do to stop him.

   The List of Adrian Messenger is the final novel in the Anthony Gethryn series that began at the height of the Golden Age of the Detective Novel from a writer whose books such as The Rasp, Warrant for X, Escape, Mystery of the Dead Police (X vs Rex), and Patrol led him to Hollywood and a long career as a screenwriter penning everything from Charlie Chan and Mr. Moto to Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca.

   It is not the end of the Golden Age of Detective Fiction; writers such as Agatha Christie, Margery Allingham, Ngaio Marsh, John Dickson Carr, and John Rhode, not to mention Ellery Queen and Rex Stout in this country, continued to write for sometime after MacDonald’s death. Still it is coda to the era, and works both as a fair play mystery novel, and not unusual for MacDonald, as a suspense novel and a thriller, making it a compellingly readable mix of the old and the new.

   Series killers, even serial killers, weren’t new to the Classical Detective story. Christie’s The Alphabet Murders, Conan Doyle’s Sign of the Four and A Study in Scarlet, MacDonald’s own Mystery of the Dead Police and Murder Gone Mad and the plot here has some interesting ties to MacDonald’s plot for his original screenplay for Circle of Danger in the motive for the killer.

   What interests me here is where the 1959 novel and the fine 1963 film by John Huston vary, because while the Huston film uses large chunks of dialogue directly from the novel it varies importantly from the book on one key point, one that puts Anthony Gethryn in the mainstream of the high handed Great Detective model and ironically sets him against the entire genre.

   So at this point:

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   One of the key personality traits of the Great Detective has always been his high handed behavior, hiding key facts from his Watson, playing God (almost all the Ellery Queen novels after The Door Between are concerned with Ellery’s unease playing God in his role as Great Detective), and acting as a figure of justice and vengeance and not merely law. When Sherlock Holmes at the end of “The Speckled Band” mused he wasn’t much bothered by the fact his actions led to the death of the brutal doctor Conan Doyle could hardly have imagined how many writers would take it to heart.

   Philo Vance practically encouraged the murderers he caught to commit suicide. Even Charlie Chan saw quite a few of his killers dying by their own hand rather than waiting for a messy trial and even Agatha Christie’s seemingly cozy Miss Jane Marple defined herself as Nemesis and not merely a puzzle solver. John Dickson Carr’s Dr. Gideon Fell burns down a house to keep the police from charging a murderer in The Man Who Could Not Shudder to avoid a miscarriage of justice.

   But few act as decisively as Anthony Gethryn does here.

   In the film, as in the book, the killer, George Brougham (Kirk Douglas), is known about half way through the book, but he has left no trail. The police have nothing but suspicions, and short of catching him in the act, and nothing suggests he will be that stupid, he only needs to wait patiently to kill the fourteen year old heir who simply cannot be watched for the rest of his life.

   Knowing that Anthony Gethryn (George C. Scott) deliberately lets Brougham know that he is close to uncovering his secrets and forces him to try to kill Gethryn, the attempt, and Brougham’s fate sealed at a fox hunt (which plays a large part in film and book though more so in the film because director Huston was devoted to riding to the hounds on his Irish estate) Brougham meeting a satisfyingly grim justice impaled on a farm implement he meant to use to kill Gethryn.

   At which point the film pauses to show us the clever make up disguises used by Douglas and his four major guest stars.

   And this is where the movie lets down fans of the book somewhat, because the ending of the book is considerably more stunning, Gethryn telling Lucas after he has seemingly walked away from the case.

   “When I told Outram that George Brougham was an extraordinary criminal, and the police didn’t have the extraordinary powers need to deal with him, I was implying that he would have to be dealt with by some person or persons who weren’t bound by a book of rules.”

   Gethryn doesn’t just set a trap to capture Brougham, though he does use the young Marquis as bait to catch Brougham in the act, he knows that short of allowing Brougham to kill the boy in front of witnesses the law has almost no case, so Gethryn, St. Denis, members of the French resistance, Hispanic allies and friends of Gethryn, and the Marquis and Adrian Messenger’s cousin Jocelyn (Dana Wynter in the film) lure George Brougham to California and arrange for him to be hoist on his own petard, to die in an accident while fleeing a foiled attempt to kill the boy.

   In short they conspire to and successfully execute George Brougham, by “accident,” or as St. Denis notes in the books final line, “What you would call, I think, a justice poetic…”

   I think it is that ending that gives the novel a unique place in the history of the Golden Age of the Fair Play Detective novel. The world has changed, and murder is no longer committed by gentlemen who can be expected to conveniently put a bullet in their own brain rather than face trial, imprisonment, and shame.

   George Brougham has no shame. He is a modern killer, amoral, a sociopath, a cunning murderer willing to kill dozens to achieve his goal. He is evil, but a more mundane and frightening kind of evil than a Fu Manchu or a Moriarty. He is a human monster born out of WW II, ruthless, clever, and above the ability of the law to stop him.

   The oh so civilized rules of the Golden Age Detective Novel have broken down and no longer apply, it is no longer just a game. The victims are ordinary men and potentially a boy who has harmed no one. The killer is as amoral and efficient as the monsters who marched millions into ovens to die in death camps, and his motive isn’t political, it’s money and power.

   To defeat him, Anthony Gethryn has to forgo the academic and cool analytic of the Great Detective he becomes an avenger as much as a Bulldog Drummond, James Bond, or Mike Hammer, an agent of chaos and not order, the classical role of the Great Detective.

   Hercule Poirot will find himself in the same role in his final adventure, Curtain. It is a concession of the Golden Age to the modern world. The brain and the intellect is not enough in the face of evil, the dragon must be met on his own level. Which at least, for me, makes The List of Adrian Messenger a fairly revolutionary statement from one of the masters of the Golden Age puzzle.

   Murder is no longer a game and its victims no longer pawns. That idea that real people are dying and murderers walk among us is almost more than the fragile conceit of the Golden Age can bear.

   I think a fairly good argument can be made MacDonald was putting the audience and his fellow writers on notice that the cozy comfortable world they created was no longer enough for readers and no longer sustainable as mystery fiction. You have to wonder whether he would have carried Gethryn beyond this point if he had lived longer, or if he had said all that could be said about the Great Detective from his point of view.




THE CASE OF THE CURIOUS BRIDE. Warner Brothers.  Warren William, Margaret Lindsay, Donald Woods, Claire Dodd, Allen Jenkins, Barton MacLane, Warren Hymer, Olin Howland, Errol Flynn, and Mayo Methot. Screenplay by Tom Reed and Brown Holmes, from the novel by Erle Stanley Gardner. Directed by Michael Curtiz.

   A B-movie plot given A-movie class by Warners and Curtiz.

   If you only know Perry Mason from the TV show, prepare yourself for an enjoyable shock. Warren William plays Mason as a shyster par excellence, the kind of lawyer not above suborning perjury, manufacturing evidence, or hiding a witness when called for. In short, the kind of slimy-but-likeable rogue that was William’s stock in trade during his brief stardom. Just how brief we shall see shortly.

   The plot involves a lady-friend of Mason’s involved with a blackmailing bigamist who is promptly murdered, the lady’s milksop husband, his domineering dad, assorted minions of the law and the lawless, and Perry’s perennial friends and foes. And as plots go, this one is forgettable to the point of inducing amnesia.

   Fortunately, Bride is more than redeemed by the talents involved. Warners sprang for a top-notch supporting cast, location shooting in San Francisco, and the genius of director Michael Curtiz, who fills the screen with smooth camerawork, artsy dissolves, and a real sense of pace.

   More than this, though, Curtiz achieves a real sense of fellow-feeling and interaction among the players. When Perry trades quips with the coroner (Olin Howland) and Della Street (Claire Dodd) the affection between them comes right across the screen. And when moviedom’s arch-pugs Allen Jenkins and Warren Hymer meet, the atmosphere of imminent combat is so real you can feel the punches before they land.

   And there’s an interesting sidelight: When Bride was released, Warners was seriously considering Warren William for the lead in their upcoming Captain Blood. Instead, the part went to newcomer Errol Flynn, who spends most of his screen time here under a sheet, playing the murder victim. Flynn, of course, shot to stardom, while Warren William’s career began a slow spiral downward, a decline in the quality of his films that he handled with the grace he never failed to show on screen.


THE LITTLE THINGS. Warner Brothers / HBO Max, 2021. Denzel Washington as Joe “Deke” Deacon, a Kern County Deputy Sheriff, Rami Malek as Jim Baxter, LASD Detective, Jared Leto as Albert Sparma (their top suspect). Written and directed by John Lee Hancock.

   It more or less begins like any other serial killer movie. There’s a girl being chased and a tired lawman whose best days may very well be behind him. In this case, however, the lawman is portrayed by Denzel Washington. You know you’re going to – at the very least – get to witness a solid acting performance.

   And for the first hour or so, that’s about all The Little Things has to offer. There’s very little new under the dark sun. Washington portrays Kern County Deputy Sheriff by the name of Joe “Deke” Deacon. Formerly an LASD homicide investigator, he has downsized to a slower, more rural part of California. All that changes when he’s asked to retrieve some evidence from his former employer. While there, he encounters Jim Baxter (Rami Malek), a younger and cockier version of his former self.

   The two don’t exactly get along, but they see something in each other. Before you know it, Deke and Baxter are unofficially working together to solve a series of murders. Deke happens to believe that this recent rash of killings of young women is somehow connected to the murders of prostitutes he failed to solve five years ago.

   Deke is seemingly mentally tortured by the ghost of a victim he failed to save and appears to be just a little too eager to connect the past with the present. It’s the standard stuff of serial killer movies. An obsessed detective, one who even goes so far as to pin photographs of victims on his bedroom wall.

   Expectations are subverted when Deke focuses on a prime suspect, a greasy, sleazy repairman who lives alone in a shoddy Hollywood apartment. The problem is that there is really nothing tying Albert Sparma (Jared Leto) to the crime other than the guy is weird – really weird – and seems to know a lot about the case. Maybe he’s the killer or maybe he’s just a disgustingly odd man with a true crime fascination.

   Without giving anything away, let’s just say that the second half of the movie, in which Deke and Baxter play a cat-and-mouse game with Sparma is far superior to the first hour. And, at some point, things change. And everything you thought you knew about Deke gets upended. No. He’s not the serial killer – this film doesn’t go for that level of cheapness – but he does have secrets he aims to guard at all costs.

   Although the movie isn’t nearly as clever as it purports to be, it’s nevertheless a decent thriller largely kept afloat by its stellar cast and stark, haunting cinematography. Set in the 1990s, the movie also benefits from good set design and an unmistakable sense of place. I happen to enjoy watching detective movies in which not everyone has a cell phone. Somehow adds to the allure and the mystery and danger of it all. Unless there is a call box or a pay phone, how are you going to call for help?



BULLDOG DRUMMOND AT BAY. Columbia Pictures, 1947. Ron Randell, Anita Louise, Patrick O’Moore, Terry Kilburn, Lester Matthews, Holmes Herbert, Leonard Mudie. Screenplay by Frank Gruber from the novel by H. C. “Sapper” McNeile. Directed by Sidney Salkow.

   Whatever might be said of the novels and five short stories about Captain Hugh “Bulldog” Drummond written by retired Major Herman Cyril McNeile, who began his career writing critically acclaimed short fiction about the First World War, it is hard to deny Drummond had a fairly good and remarkably long film career from his first appearance in 1919, finally bowing out after a last appearance during the sixties spy craze.

   Along the way there was a long running radio series, with a memorable opening, “Out of the fog, out of the night …”, a hit play, two movie parodies, and outings in the American pulps, the Strand Magazine, song, and even comics. Drummond even made it into a Warner Brothers cartoon, albeit as an actual bulldog.

   We won’t even go into the influence on writers like Leslie Charteris and the Saint, John Creasey and Department Z, Patrick Dawlish, and Bruce Murdoch, Berkeley Gray and Norman Conquest, Mickey Spillane and Mike Hammer, Ian Fleming and James Bond, and Clive Cussler and Dirk Pitt save to note the film Drummond was certainly as much of an influence as the literary version on later writers. An entire school of Drummond imitators exist in British thriller fiction.

   Over the years on-screen Drummond was played by a variety of actors including twice by Ronald Colman who received an Oscar nomination for his first outing in 1929’s Bulldog Drummond (ironically losing to Warner Baxter playing the Cisco Kid in In Old Arizona), Rod La Roque (in a silent American film based on the book but basically ignoring it), Ralph Richardson, Ray Milland, Tom Conway, Walter Pidgeon, and Richard Johnson.

   In 1947 Australian actor Ron Randell (who was also the Lone Wolf on screen for a while) picked up the reins dropped by the John Howard Paramount Drummond series of the thirties in a remake of 1937’s Bulldog Drummond at Bay with John Lodge.

   Unlike the Lodge film, which had splendid villainy by American Victor Jory, this version, scripted by Frank Gruber (who among other things wrote the splendid screenplay for A Mask for Dimitrios), actually resembles the book it is based on, finding Drummond down in the Fen country, planning to assassinate some ducks after retiring from the army, when a stone thrown through his window in the middle of the night plunges him into adventure.

   No sooner does Drummond step outside to look about than two men in a car pull up and one (Lester Matthews) pulls a gun on him. Drummond plays dumb and they depart after a quick search, but driving away they spot what they were looking for, the man who threw the rock through Drummond’s window.

   The next morning Doris Meredith (Anita Louise) shows up with convenient car trouble and tries to drug Drummond so she can search for the message tied to the rock when he serves her tea. Curiouser and curiouser as Alice observed. Doris claims she needs Drummond’s help and that her brother is in trouble.

   At this point Drummond calls his old friend Inspector McIver (Holmes Herbert) and enlists a local would be reporter (Terry Kilburn) and his old pal Algy Longworth (Pat O’Moore billed as Patrick here).

   When Drummond’s hunting dog is killed and his housekeeper drugged while he is recruiting Algy things start picking up, then Drummond captures one of the men watching his house, who is murdered before he can talk shortly after an angry McIver arrives explaining one of his under cover men, Richard Hamilton, is missing.

   Does Hamilton have a sister? Maybe, maybe not.

   From there on the whole thing moves at a clip to a satisfying conclusion.

   Unfortunately they leave out the chief villain of the book, none other than Carl Peterson’s murderous inamorata Irma Peterson.

   As far as I know this is only available as part of a pricey set of Drummond DVD’s including all the Drummond films extant in two volumes (most, including the Conway films are easily found on YouTube and elsewhere). Picture quality is poor, but watchable and there are a few weak spots with the sound, but it and the second and final Randell film Bulldog Drummond Strikes Back are both fairly good B-programmers, largely because Randell is much closer to the Drummond of the books than most of the actors cast in the role with broad shoulders and a barrel chest.

   Whatever his limits as an actor he had easy charm on screen, a fine voice, looked good in action, and was more than capable of carrying this sort of thing effortlessly (which I rate has a fairly high level of skill, every actor doesn’t have to play Lear). Tom Conway would follow in two Drummond outings with One Step Beyond host John Newland as Algy a year later, then in 1951 Walter Pidgeon would step out in a major Drummond film, Calling Bulldog Drummond, based on the book by the McNeile’s successor and the model for Drummond, Gerard Fairlie and starring sexy voiced Margaret Leighton, Bernard Lee (M from the Bond films), and future Drummond (in a television pilot) Robert Beatty. After that Drummond was pretty much silent until 1967 and 1969’s Deadlier Than the Male (*) and Some Girls Do with Richard Johnson.

   There have been a couple of attempts at updating Drummond in recent years by various writers including one series imagining him as a modern retired SAS type. None of them have really caught on. A little over a century since he debuted taking out a classified ad looking for adventure Drummond seems relegated to nostalgia, but who knows. In popular fiction anything can happen.

   (*) The novelization of that one by Henry Reymond is supposedly by none other than master mystery writer H. R. F. Keating, though from reading the second book also by “Reymond” seems unlikely to be Keating.


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