Reviews


ELLERY QUEEN – Beware the Young Stranger. Pocket, paperback original; 1st printing, May 1965.

   Back in 1961, when the first of the bogus Ellery Queen paperbacks like this one came out, in my total lack of sophisticated way, as I recall it, I said something to myself along the lines of, Gee those guys must really need the money. I bought them all, though, or most of them, but I don’t think I got around to reading many of them, no more than two or three. I don’t think I missed much, but as you and I both know full well, some must have been better than others.

   This one was written by Talmage Powell, a long-time pulp writer and the creator of the better than average PI Ed Rivers paperback series. And so he was an author I was therefore familiar with at the time, but how was I or anyone else to know?

   This one’s not bad — as a sample I decided to give myself earlier this past weekend — and in fact, it’s better written than most of the paperback original mysteries that were coming out around the same time. But it’s also straight as a string, with no particular surprise in the telling; even worse, it has an awfully low page count of only 156 pages, with a slightly larger than usual font size.

   There’s a large back story to go along with the cast of characters in the upper middle class, or country club setting of this novel, but what it boils down to is this: distinguished diplomat John Vallancourt’s daughter is 21 and in love with a boy whose background is somewhat shady. He was questioned but released in the investigation of a young girl’s death while on spring break, for example, so Vallancourt takes it upon himself to discover a lot more about him.

   But when the boy’s aunt is murdered, and he is seen leaving the scene and soon after disappearing, on the run with the daughter in tow, Vallancourt’s task takes on much more serious tones. Is the boy guilty? Or is he innocent? And will Vallancourt find the two of them in time?

REVIEWED BY DAVID VINEYARD:


PANIC IN YEAR ZERO! American International Pictures, 1962. Re-released as End of the World. Ray Milland, Jean Hagen, Frankie Avalon, Mary Mitchell, Joan Freeman, Richard Bakalayan, Rex Holman, Willis Bouchy (as Buchet). Screenwriters: Jay Simms (story), John Morton, based on the short stories “Lot” and “Lot’s Daughter” by Ward Moore (uncredited). Director: Ray Milland.

   It’s not that often a really low budget film over-performs as much as this one does. Maybe it’s the cast, maybe it’s the time it was written in, maybe it was sheer luck, but this little post-apocalyptic thriller is relatively smart, thoughtful, and even insightful.

   Milland and family, wife Hagen, son and daughter Avalon and Mitchell, are off on a weekend fishing trip when Los Angeles is obliterated by a sneak nuclear attack. Mom is in shock, the kids are in panic mode, and Milland, the ultimate fifties early-sixties father figure, goes into full survival mode, willing to do whatever it takes for his family to survive.

   There are no mutants, no invaders, the threat is other people trying to survive and lowlife types willing to kill, rape, and revert to animals in the subsequent chaos. As the father, Milland holds up a store for supplies as they race just ahead of the flood of refugees fleeing devastated L.A., and heads for a cave to wait out the fallout. Along the way he becomes more than a little ruthless and severe and gets little help from Mom, who is in shock, or the children who don’t understand what he does about human nature.

   The tension in the film is as much from character development as incident.

   Hagen and Milland raise the level of this, a solid little post holocaust film in the tradition of Pat Frank’s Alas Babylon, Philip Wylie’s Tomorrow, or, minus the polemical arguments and nasty bits Heinlien’s Farnham’s Freehold. In fact it poses a lot of the same questions as the Heinlien novel while coming to altogether different conclusions.

   There is a novelization of this by Dean Owen (Brides of Dracula) under the title End of the World, the one which was used when the film was re-released (Ace, 1962).

   This is probably the best of the films Milland directed. It has flaws, low budget, likely too quick shooting schedule, but it stays with you, and you may be impressed how logically the film develops considering other movies of the genre. I first saw it in a theater at age twelve and was surprisingly not disappointed when I saw it again as an adult. Not many low budget films of this sort survive that test.

   I’m not sure, but this may be the last film where Milland played the leading man and the hero.

REVIEWED BY JONATHAN LEWIS:


CRUSH THE SKULL. 2015. Tim Chiou, Chris Dinh, Katie Savoy, Chris Riedell. Director & co-screenwriter: Viet Nguyen.

   It’s safe to say that, even if you don’t much care for horror/comedy mash-ups, you’ll come away feeling that there is something almost magical about the screen chemistry between the two leads in Crush the Skull, a quirky thriller which defies traditional genre categories.

   Directed by Viet Nyugen (iZombie), the film stars Chris Dinh and Katie Savoy as Ollie and Blair, two deadbeat thirty-year-olds who, for money and kicks, disguise themselves as painters and rob houses when the owners are away. There’s something just so natural about these two characters and their witty, occasionally caustic, always lovable banter that make this otherwise uneven, occasionally bewildering, film worth a look.

   Like any good horror story, Crush the Skull begins with a premise that’s also inherently a morality tale pushed to the extreme: What happens if robbers break into a house only to learn that it’s actually a serial killer’s lair and these would-be criminals become captives? It’s certainly an intriguing idea, albeit not the most creative one ever pitched. But if you mix it up with a docudrama style of filmmaking and a deadpan sense of humor – and indeed, fun – you might just end up with something that punches higher than its weight.

   That’s the case with Crush the Skull, or at least it was for me. Truth be told, I don’t care all that much for the “serial killer’s lair” theme, and it took some effort for me to adjust myself to that. We know, to some degree, what motivates serial killers. It’s the supernatural, the unexplainable and unbelievable that’s even more frightening than human evil and which interests me far more.

   But the film does its best to provide the viewer with some twists and turns along with some unanswered questions that aren’t fully resolved until the haunting final frame. All told, I can’t say that this recent feature isn’t without its flaws, including a rather prolonged backstory, but it shows a self-conscious sense of fun that makes it far more memorable than your typical serial killer thriller.

THE DAKOTAS “A Man Called Ragan.” ABC-TV, Pilot Episode, 23 April 1962. Larry Ward, Chad Everett, Jack Elam, Mike Green. Guest Cast: Arch Johnson, Jeanne Cooper, Lee Van Cleef. Based on a novel by Harry Whittington. Director: Richard C. Sarafian.

   Although The Dakotas is sometimes said to be a spinoff of ABC’s western series Cheyenne, starring Clint Walker, that doesn’t really seem to be the case. Although (as I understand it) this pilot episode ran in Cheyenne’s time slot, so did another ABC western, Bronco, in a “wheel” format, nor did Clint Walker appear in this first Dakotas episode.

   The confusion seems to have been compounded when The Dakotas again took over the same time slot as Cheyenne when the latter was cancelled halfway through the 1962 season. The first episode of The Dakotas’ first season was aired on January 7, 1963. (I was not watching. I was out celebrating my birthday.)

   The leading character of both the pilot is Frank Ragan, an ex-marshal in the Dakotas territory played by little known Frank Ward, although he was on dozens of TV shows over his career as an actor. With a patch over one eye, when he rides into the small town of Stark City, he has already had enough of his former job and has resigned. One last thing he must do, however, is to learn what happened to a good friend who lived there before his death, his homestead burned to the ground.

   We the viewer are way ahead of him as soon as Ben Stark (Arch Johnson) the area’s most powerful rancher — and the man who owns the town — and his men make an appearance. A showdown is inevitable, and Frank Ragan is just the man for the job.

   But the showdown must come at the end of this episode, and along the way the men who will become Ragan’s deputies in the rest of the series must be introduced:

   Jack Elam plays J. D. Smith, a gunman for hire who changes sides when he sees how the cards are being played; Chad Everett is Ben Stark’s adopted son Del, who is beginning to learn that his father has serious feet of clay; while Mike Green is the town’s sheriff, Vance Porter, a cowardly man totally under Ben Stark’s thumb.

   It isn’t a gang of men totally dedicated to law and order, in other words, but the series lasted for nineteen episodes before being cancelled with the reputation of being the most violent TV series on the air. I’d go along with that. When Ragan and his men ride out of town at the show’s conclusion, the only person left behind in the town is saloon owner Marti Stevens (Jeanne Cooper). Everyone else is dead. (It was a very small town, but it has been made even smaller.)

   Critically, I think the dialogue was a little too stagey, as if this were a tryout for Playhouse 90, say, and of the regular cast, the only one worth watching is Jack Elam. He steals every scene he’s in.

Reviewed by DAN STUMPF:


LUKE SHORT – Station West. Houghton Mifflin, hardcover, 1946. Bantam #139, paperback, 1948. Serialized in The Saturday Evening Post from 19 Oct to 30 Nov 1946. Reprinted many times.

STATION WEST. RKO, 1948. Dick Powell, Jane Greer, Agnes Moorehead, Burl Ives, Guinn “Big Boy’ Williams, Steve Brodie, Raymond Burr and the ever-popular Regis Toomey. Screenplay by Frank Fenton and Winston Miller. Directed by Sidney Lanfield.

   Luke Short always had a way with gritty characters and down-and-dirty stories, and here’s one of his best. John Haven, a cavalry officer working undercover, gets dispatched to investigate the theft of Army Uniforms at the fort near the mining/logging town of South Pass Wyoming and quickly discovers that the quirky crime is merely a prelude to something much more grandiose and sinister.

   From this fairly conventional start, Short builds an atmosphere of pervasive evil and compulsive treachery, painting South Pass as a snowbound Western Gomorrah: a town run by corrupt bosses, rife with casual killings, where larceny is a way of life and life is nasty brutish and short, to coin a phrase.

   To be sure, there are some good folks here: the upright Cavalry Captain and his beautiful daughter; the hard-working widder woman working as Haven’s liaison; a few miners and freighters and cooks… but the impressive thing about Station West is how the author pushes his protagonist through a plot filled with a near-constant sense of danger and double-cross. Short keeps us guessing about the moves and counter-moves in a story that bucks and jumps like a toboggan on a bumpy slope — an apt comparison since he also evokes the chill of a Wyoming winter in a way that kept me shivering.

   As I watched the film made from this, it suddenly occurred to me that the TV character Peter Gunn must have been based on Dick Powell’s tough-guy persona; they show the same wry cynicism, share the lop-sided grin, are quick with a quip or a punch, and handy with the ladies as the plot requires. That has nothing o do with this review — just thought I’d throw it in here and look at the ripples.

   Anyway, the movie Station West works a few changes on the book. For one thing it swaps the frigid Wyoming locale for sunny, picturesque (and familiar) Red Rock area around Sedona Arizona. And they write in another character: where the criminal gang in the book is run by a couple of nasty tough guys, the outfit in the movie is headed by Jane Greer, who runs her unlawful enterprise with an iron fist, much as Barbara Stanwyck would do (more convincingly) a bit later.

   The Greer character lends a neat noirish tone to a film that carries it nicely; there’s enough night in this movie to put a Yukon winter to shame. We also get Raymond Burr as a crooked lawyer, Agnes Moorehead, and Guinn “Big Boy” Williams as a sadistic strong-arm reminiscent of his turn in The Glass Key (1935).

   The film carries over the fights, shootings and double-crosses from the book and carries them well, and it even makes room for a few brief and quirky turns by some good character actors, but one of these puzzles me:

   Burl Ives sings the song under the title credits and has a showy bit as a philosophical hotel clerk (you know the type) but he gets NO BILLING! His name never appears on the cast list or even in the musical credits. I did some research on this and found that Ives was blacklisted by the HUAC in 1950, which led to a rather controversial phase in his life and career, and I wondered if this might have something to do with it, which led to some deeper thought about the nature of hypocrisy and how one can deny the obvious simply by keeping a straight face…..

   But all that is mere idle speculation. And these thoughts passed like breeze, which man respecteth not. Station West is a fine book and a fun noir Western, and you should enjoy them both.

REVIEWED BY BARRY GARDNER:


MICHAEL BOWEN – Faithfully Executed. Richard Michaelson #2, St. Martin’s, hardcover, 1992. No paperback edition.

   I enjoyed both this and the first Michaelson novel, Washington Deceased. Michaelson is a retired foreign service officer, now with the Brookings Institution. He is somewhat of a Washington insider, and is shamelessly angling for a high ranking post with the`next administration.

   The Michaelson novels remind me somewhat of Ross Thomas in their plots and general outlook on the world of politics, though Bowen isn’t the writer that Thomas is. He’s more than adequate, though, and writes entertainingly. He’s also written two baseball mysteries that I haven’t had the opportunity to read, and one other non-series mystery.

   The current book deals with the murder of a man about to be executed, plots to rig computerized elections results, and various other kinds of skullduggery. Recommended for those who enjoy political goings on mixed with mayhem.

– Reprinted from Fireman, Fireman, Save My Books #4, November 1992.


      The Richard Michaelson series –

1. Washington Deceased (1990)

2. Faithfully Executed (1992)
3. Corruptly Procured (1994)
4. Worst Case Scenario (1996)
5. Collateral Damage (1999)

Other Bibliographic Notes:   Bowen has written three books in his Thomas & Sandrine Cadette Curry series, taking place in New York in the 1960s, but only the second, Fielder’s Choice, appears to have baseball as part of its plot. Since the year 2000, Bowen has also written five books in a series featuring Rep & Melissa Pennyworth. Rep is an attorney who keeps running across cases of murder.

FOUR FORGOTTEN TV AND RADIO SPY SERIES

by Michael Shonk


WORLD OF GIANTS. ZIV Productions, 1959; syndicated. Cast: Marshall Thompson as Mel Hunter, Arthur Franz as Bill Winters and Marcia Henderson as Miss Brown.

SPY SHADOW. NBC, 1967-68. Depatrie-Freleng Productions with Mirisch-Rich Television. Voice Cast: Ted Cassidy, June Foray, Shepard Menkin, Don Messick, Paul Frees. Producers: David H. Depatie and Fritz Freleng.

FORTUNE HUNTER. Fox, 1994. BBK Productions Inc. / Columbia Pictures Television. Cast: Mark Frankel as Charlton Dial, and John Robert Hoffman as Harry Flack. Created by Steven Aspis. Co-Executive Producers: Steven Aspis & Paul Stupin. Executive Prodcuers: Frank Lupo & Carlton Cuse.

MR. I.A. MOTO. NBC Radio, 1951; sustaining. Cast: James Monk and Mr. I. A. Moto. Produced by Carol Irwin or Doris Quinlan. Announcer: Fred Collins or Ray Barret. Director: Harry W. Junkin. Writers include Harry W. Junkin, Robert Tallman and Jim Haines.

* * * * * * *


WORLD OF GIANTS (WOG). “Special Agent.” Teleplay by Donald Duncan and Jack Laird; story by Donald Duncan. Directed and produced by Otto Lang. Guest Cast: John Gallaudet and James Seay *** While on a mission behind the Iron Curtain, American spy Mel Hunter suffered an accident that shrank him to six inches. “Special Agent” is the series first episode and is the story of Mel’s first case as a six-inch man. Mel and his normal sized partner Bill search an office for secret papers.

   There are two episodes available on YouTube – the first and last. Both are slow paced and clumsily written, even for the late fifties era. Direction and special effects did what they could with the limits of technology at the time. Drama was mocked as the most serious threats to life of our hero spy came from a cat and a falling pencil.

   According to Broadcasting, (July 28 1958, August 18 1958 and July 28 1958) WOG was originally scheduled for the 1958-59 fall season on the CBS network. It would have aired on Wednesday following Invisible Man. Production problems caused the series to be delayed. The 1958 season was a bad time for network’s ad sales; the networks were still struggling with the fallout from the quiz show scandals. Both Invisible Man and World of Giants were replaced by the live drama Pursuit. WOG would finally air in syndication starting September 1959 and last only thirteen episodes.



SPY SHADOW. “Evila the Terrible” Credits can be found here on the Big Cartoon Database. *** Villain Evila is trying to take over the World again. Her servant has invented a hypnosis ray gun that Evila uses to obtain everyone’s jewels and money. Interspy agent Richard Vance is sent to stop his old flame.

   This poorly animated and written Saturday morning cartoon is bad enough to be fun to watch. Spy Shadow was a segment of Saturday morning cartoon series, Super President Show. (Super President was the President of the United States and when needed turned into costumed superhero Super President who could change his molecular structure to any form).

   Spy Shadow featured Richard Vance, an agent for an organization named Interspy. Thanks to his training in mysterious Tibet, Vance and his shadow could separate to fight Super-villains. The episodes usually began with the villain succeeding in his/her/it evil plot of the week. Vance would try to stop the crime and bad guys. Vance would fail and get captured. The villain would usually leave Vance in an over complicated death trap. Vance’s shadow would separate from his body and save the spy/detective from the trap. The only thing that could stop the shadow was darkness, as the shadow needed light to exist.

   Both Spy Shadow and Super PresidentT episodes can be found on YouTube.



FORTUNE HUNTER. “Red Alert.” Written by Carlton Cuse; directed by Mike Levine. Guest Cast: J.G. Hertzler and Karen Witter. *** The plot has a mad man seeking to free the Ukraine from Russia by blackmailing the World with nerve gas. The nerve gas had last been seen stored in an out of date Russian satellite that had crashed in South Carolina.

   “Red Alert” featured a better than average script for the series by Carlton Cuse (Lost). Frankel offered some appeal as a cut-rate Bond while Hoffman was less hammy than usual. Karen Witter was terrible as the 90s stereotype – the female brilliant scientist/kick ass soldier with a beauty queen’s looks.

   I would not be surprised that this series still has fans, especially young men who grew up during the 90s. Fortune Hunter is a typical example of the 1990s Action TV series with a style best described as 90s version of Stephen J. Cannell does James Bond.

   However Fortune Hunter lacked any originality. The premise was a rip-off of TV series Search (1972, NBC). Former top British spy Charlton Dial now worked for Intercept Corporation, a private company specializing in high-risk assignments recovering objects. Dial was the field agent who had special contact lens and earpiece that allowed comedy relief and Intercept tech Harry to monitor Dial’s activity as a one man “Probe Control.” And not surprisingly the series had a fondness for gadgets.

   While all thirteen episodes were filmed and reportedly successfully aired around the World, Fox pulled it off the air after only five episodes aired. “Red Alert” was the last to air on Fox.



MR. I. A. MOTO. “The Bazaloff Paper.” Written and directed by Harry W. Junkin. Produced by Carol Irwin. Cast: James Monk as Moto. Guest cast: Ross Martin and Connie Lembeke. *** Moto is in the Far East searching for a murdered scientist’s paper that could change the balance of power in the Pacific.

   The character of Mr. Moto first appeared in a series of books written by John P. Marquand. I have a great fondness for the film version of Mr. Moto as portrayed by Peter Lorre. Both the books and films are still remembered today, but the same can not be said about the NBC radio series.

   The radio series was well-written, racist, sexist and an excellent example of the culture at the time. Japanese-American Moto worked as an international secret agent fighting communism and crime all over the world.

   The series aired on NBC in 1951 without a sponsor. It was a difficult time for radio, as TV was replacing it as the public’s favorite home entertainment. The focus of NBC was more on TV, and while the network produced 23 half-hours without a commercial sponsor, NBC paid little attention to promoting the series. Because of this there remains some confusion and questions about Mr. I. A. Moto.

   For example, there are two versions surviving of the same story – “Bazaloff Paper” and “Kuriloff Paper.” Some believe one was for the West Coast and the other for the East Coast. Others believe one was a rehearsal copy and the other the final air version. Here are both versions:

               Bazaloff Paper:

               Kuriloff Paper:

   More details about Mr. I. A. Moto can be found at The Digital Deli Too.

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