Reviewed by DAN STUMPF on:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reviewed by JONATHAN LEWIS:         

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

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

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

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

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

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

Random but relatively Uncontroversial
Musings by DAN STUMPF on:

THE RETURN OF THE CISCO KID. Fox, 1939. Warner Baxter, Lynn Bari, Henry Hull, Cesar Romero, Robert Barrat, Kane Richmond, Chris-Pin Martin and C. Henry Gordon. Written by Milton Sperling. Directed by Herbert I. Leeds.

   I’ve told the story before, but…

   The little Repair-and-Sale shop where I bought my first typewriter had a framed photo of Warner Baxter on the wall, signed “Thanks for everything, Warner Baxter” and a typewritten note beneath it to the effect that the owner of the shop once loaned then-salesman Baxter $100 to go to Hollywood and get started in the Movies.

   The typewriter purchase was in the late 1970s, and I doubt that anyone then much noticed the photo nor remembered Baxter as the guy who told Ruby Keeler, “You’re going out a youngster, but you’ve got to come back a star!” much less as the actor who won an Oscar for playing the Cisco Kid in In Old Arizona (Fox, 1929.)

   In the years following Old Arizona, Fox shuffled Baxter into a number of Gay Bandido roles, including a reprise of Cisco in 1930, but in 1939 they apparently toyed with the idea of a series of B-features around the character and launched it with The Return of the Cisco Kid.

   That this was intended as a B series was clear from the assignment of director Lederman and writer Sperling, who spent most of their time working on things like the Charlie Chan and Mr. Moto series. And though Return is done with the customary Fox gloss, the lack of ambition is evident throughout, particularly in some of the worst fake-riding-past-back-projection scenes ever committed to film.

   Baxter himself looks a bit tired and tatty to be dashing about as O. Henry’s Robin Hood of the old west, and his romancing of Lynn Bari (a B starlet if ever there was one) has a rather pathetic edge to it, particularly as she prefers the younger Kane Richmond for story purposes. In fact, when Fox launched the Cisco series proper later that same year, they promoted Cesar Romero to the lead — more on him later, but now on to the Plot.

   It’s Western Plot #A-5: heroine & father (Henry Hull, feasting on the scenery even more than usual) swindled out of their ranch. Fortunately they cross paths with Cisco and his pals Lopez (Romero) and Gordito (Chris-Pin Martin) a sort of 2-man Hispanic Defamation Society: dirty, lazy, dishonest and greasy, fleeing criminal pasts in Mexico for more promising prospects here in the U.S. “Where perhaps,” Cisco muses, “I weel become the Presidente!”

   Okay, we’ll just let that one pass uncommented-on. Suffice it to say Cisco takes a hand, there are fights, chases, merry badinage, clever trickery and a surprising lack of gunplay for a B-western. And an ending that rather surprised me so I’ll throw in a


   Robert Barrat is the heavy in this one, a dishonest Sheriff, callous swindler and something of a tough guy — he beats a young Ward Bond in a fair fight and challenges Cisco to duke it out at one point — so when the two have their last confrontation one expects a bit of conflict.

   Only it doesn’t happen. What we get instead is that Cisco warns Barrat to leave his friends alone, and Barrat promises to do that if Cisco stays out of his territory. The deal is struck, there are press releases, smiling photo-ops, and Cisco rides away to further adventures.

   And that’s it. To western fans accustomed to the cathartic conclusions typical of the genre, it may come as something of a disappointment, and it certainly caught me off-guard, but on reflection I rather think I’ll remember this one long after other B-westerns have faded from recollection.


W. H. HODGSON “The Thing Invisible.” First published in The New Magazine, January 1912. Reprinted in Carnacki, The Ghost Finder (Eveleigh Nash, UK, hardcover, 1913; Mycroft & Moran, US, hardcover, 1947).

   W. H. Hodgson’s Edwardian occult detective story, “The Thing Invisible” may well be considered, at least by contemporary aesthetic and literary standards, a rather quaint foray into the realm of supernatural investigations.

   Written in an engaging narrative style, this story is one of Hodgson’s Carnacki detective tales featuring the eponymous sleuth tasked with investigating the arcane and the bizarre. Carnacki, as a investigator of the paranormal, is all too human and more than willing to admit that he’s far from a fearless protagonist. Indeed, what makes Carnacki such an engaging personality is that he’s more than willing to admit that the unknown is capable of frightening him.

   In “The Thing Invisible,” Carnacki recounts a case in which he faced down a mysterious dagger that seemed to act on its own accord, a death tool that nearly murdered a family’s butler. As a method of sleuthing, Carnacki makes use of early photography, going so far as to take surreptitious photos which he then uses to solve the puzzle of how a dagger could seemingly float mid-air and attack a man.

   Although Hodgson’s writing doesn’t invoke the cosmic dread quite to the same degree that Algernon Blackwood’s work does so effectively, it nevertheless does impress upon the reader a sense of creeping otherworldliness and subtle terror. Even more so, given that in this story at least [SPOILER ALERT], the seemingly impossible events have a mechanical, rational explanation.

Reviewed by DAVID VINEYARD:          

GORDON McALPINE – Woman With a Blue Pencil. Seventh Street Books, trade paperback original, 10 November 2015.

   Sam Sumida, a Japanese American academic living in LA on the eve of Pearl Harbor finds himself forced to turn private eye to investigate the murder of his wife by a white man: Jimmie Park is a Korean American agent battling an operation of the Japanese Fifth Columnists (*) in Los Angeles just after Pearl Harbor.

   Both Sam Sumida and Jimmie Park are characters in the same novel by Nisei Takumi Saito: the Sumida novel the one he was writing before Pearl Harbor and December 7th 1941, and the Park novel the revised post Pearl Harbor form of the novel resulting from his correspondence with Maxine Wakefield, an editor who is determined to model Saito’s novel into a successful book, even if she has to destroy any sense of Saito’s Japanese identity and turn his book into a pulpish spy novel written under a Caucasian pen name.

   We read the story in alternating chapters from the two very different novels within this novel that parallel each other. The Woman With the Blue Pencil is at least three novels in one: the increasingly paranoid and schizophrenic private eye novel being written about Sam Sumida; the pulpish Jimmie Park spy novel being sanitized of any hint of Japanese identity: and, the story of Takumi Saito, told only in the correspondence of Maxine his editor as she blue pencils his Nisei identity out of existence in his work and even his life.

   Maxine is the novel’s unlikely femme fatale, her seduction of the young author as real as that in any boudoir or dive, and her blue pencil as devastating as any black negligee or low cut gown in any noirish novel.

   The Woman With a Blue Pencil works on several levels, not the least of which is the Sumida private detective novel spiraling into schizophrenia and identity loss. The writing is assured, the manipulation subtle, and McAlpine wisely lets Takumi’s story tell itself.

   Maxine is presented as a realistic editor, not a monster, her almost motherly advice at one both right for the time and deadly to the artist and his work. It is a subtle statement about how society, represented by Maxine and the world of publishing, can seduce anyone to fit in while the world around them spiraling out of control, as well as a commentary on the plight of the artist in the market.

   I won’t say this is for everyone. I was a bit wary of it when I started, fearing it would be yet another didactic arty attempt to use the mystery form as a statement with no understanding of the form or love for it. But McAlpine, who previously wrote Hammett Unwritten, is well aware of the form and keeps a sure hand in a relatively short novel that is all the better for its brevity. With today’s headlines, the book is all the more contemporary in dealing with the difficulty of maintaining identity in an unpopular minority in a society in crisis and panic.

   (*) Since the book does not mention it, it needs to be pointed out that no Nisei, Japanese American, has ever betrayed this country before or after WWII. Despite urban legends to the contrary, no Nisei here or in Hawaii committed any act of treason or sabotage even after the Internment of Japanese Americans on the West Coast — more than can be said for German or other immigrants born here then or later.


NICHOLAS KILMER – Dirty Linen. Henry Holt & Co., hardcover, March 1999. Poisoned Pen Press, softcover, March 2001.

MICHELLE BLAKE – The 8ook of Light. G. P. Putnam’s Sons, hardcover, May 2003. Berkley, paperback, May 2004.

   Both these books are by authors I’ve not read before and feature plot hooks that I can’t resist: an art historical mystery (Dirty Linen) in which a batch of J. W. M. Turner drawings turn up in a country auction; and, in The Book of Light, the discovery of an ancient document, the “Q” manuscript that was purportedly the source for much of the biblical texts of Matthew and Luke. But apart from irresistible hooks, they couldn’t be more different.

   In Kilmer’s book, Fred Taylor is an agent for Boston collector Clayton Reed charged to bid on a lot at a benefit auction. Fred has no idea what is in the lot and when it turns out to be a series of erotic drawings by the English landscape master Turner, he finds himself enmeshed in a dangerous web of murder and attempted murder that has him trying to trace the history of the contested works in an attempt to establish the provenance of the drawings and thwart other murders.

   Blake’s compelling theological thriller plays out in a constricted setting dominated by Lilly Connor, an Episcopalian priest filling in as a Boston area college religious counselor, who’s asked to validate a manuscript, which she comes to suspect may be the legendary Book of Light, a collection of the transcribed words of Jesus, rather than the “Q” document.

   Kilmer’s novel is a raunchy, humorous caper. Blake’s stylistically acute novel is a record of souls in anguish, with a centuries old secret group committed to guarding the secrets of the ancient document that places Lilly’s small frightened group in extreme peril.

   I’ll undoubtedly return to both writers, but my expectations will be higher for Blake than for Kilmer.

HUGH McLEAVE – Second Time Around. Walker, US, hardcover, 1981; paperback, 1984. First published in the UK by Robert Hale, hardcover, 1981.

   According to Al Hubin’s Crime Fiction IV, five of Hugh McLeave’s works of thriller fiction (one as by Richard Copeland) feature as their leading protagonist, free-wheeling psychologist Dr. Gregor Maclean, who, as a leading character in Second Time Around, takes on what is very nearly a secondary role.

   On the other hand, a psychologist is exactly who is needed at the center of this Cold War tale about a reputable London publisher who on occasion checks into various clinics with no memory of who he is or why he is having such terrible dreams.

   Maclean becomes interested when Dr. Armitage, a close acquaintance who was treating the man, gets run down by an automobile after confiding his concerns to Maclean, but in the stark, documentary-like style of writing that McLeave employs, Maclean seems to exhibit no great anguish over Armitage’s death – only the delight of tackling the puzzle it seems to supply.

   Here’s a longish quote from pages 32-33 to illustrate. Deidre is Maclean’s long-suffering live-in assistant:

   Had he followed Deidre’s advice he would have handed over the whole case to Scotland Yard; she considered his idea of investigating the case himself as mad and dangerous. Then, he always had this tussle with her; she sometimes felt inclined to view psychiatry as a painless exercise in straightening out mental kinks with homely advice and would have filled his working ours with nice, harmless neurotics, from compulsive handwashers and cake-eaters to to cat-and-bird phobias; Deidre had another criterion, sizing up if these patients could keep them in high-rent Harley Street; he, on the other hand, would have been involved with schizophrenics and paranoiacs, the acute depressive cases and hopeless alcoholics, seeing some bit of himself in all of them; most of them would touch him for money rather than expect to pay for his help. So, over the years, he and Deidre had established a sort of symbiosis; she allowed him a percentage of problem people with the sort of mental disorders that had brought him into psychiatry in the first place, while he treated her affluent neurotics.

   “Macushla, just look at him as a patient,” he pleaded.

   The case – and yes, he certainly does decide to get involved – takes Maclean, Deidre, the publisher’s daughter, and a male friend of the daughter, not to mention at least one other – on a hastily arranged trip to Germany, both East and West, on the trail of the man whose memory is either coming back — and if so, from what hidden past? Or he is cracking up completely and probably responsible for the deaths of several prostitutes who reminded him of whom?

   Second Time Around verges very closely into science fictional territory, mixed in with a considerable amount of bitter cold war philosophy. But is the basis of the book based entirely on fiction? Very likely not.

   Nor is this a book which is like anything I have ever read before. It is clear more quickly to the reader what the underlying circumstances are (which I am being so careful not to tell you about) than they are to Maclean. This may be an error, perhaps, on the author’s part, because the tale starts to plod a little, about two-thirds of the way through.

   After reading this book I still prefer the more solid espionage efforts of Ross Thomas and Manning Coles, two writers who otherwise have little in common – or do they? – but I have to admit that, one, McLeave still has a small surprise or two up his sleeve, and, two, this very well may be one of the saddest love stories ever written. Is that enough for a recommendation? Either way, it will have to do.

— January 2005

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