Reviews


Reviewed by JONATHAN LEWIS:


THE CRIMSON BLADE. Columbia Pictures, US, 1964. First released in the UK by Hammer Films, 1963, as The Scarlet Blade. Lionel Jeffries, Oliver Reed, Jack Hedley (as Edward Beverley, The Scarlet Blade), June Thorburn, Michael Ripper, Suzan Farmer. Screenwriter-Director: John Gilling.

   For a film about standing up to tyranny, the titular hero in The Crimson Blade (released in the UK as The Scarlet Blade) is a rather undistinguished character. Set during the English Civil War, this Hammer production features Jack Hedley in the role of Edward Beverley/The Crimson Blade, a royalist fighting against Oliver Cromwell’s forces.

   Problem is: he’s one of the most uninteresting, if not downright dull, heroes ever depicted in an historical epic at least as far as I can remember. If you hope to find an inspired, perhaps a bit rakish hero — a swashbuckling Errol Flynn sort – in this average costumer, you’re going to be sorely disappointed.

   Instead, the far more compelling character depicted in The Crimson Blade is the treacherous, borderline sociopath Captain Tom Sylvester. Portrayed by Oliver Reed with a mischievous gleam in his eye, Sylvester plays both ends against the middle to the point where you’re never exactly sure where his true loyalties lie.

   He’s also the unrequited member of a love triangle that includes the daughter of his senior officer, Colonel Judd (Lionel Jeffries) and the Crimson Blade. Reed’s a fine actor and a commanding presence and it shows. It’s just unfortunate that the movie didn’t cast him in the role of the Crimson Blade. He could have made a great, if not rough around the edges, outlaw hero.

   Even so, The Crimson Blade isn’t a particularly bad film. Not by any means. The film has that early Hammer Film aesthetic that I personally love. Even the more theatrical moments work well enough so that the movie rarely feels stagy. As escapism, the film works quite well. It’s just unfortunate that, with some obvious tweaking, the movie could have worked so much better.

Reviewed by DAVID VINEYARD:         


P. D. JAMES – The Lighthouse. Alfred A. Knopf, hardcover. First US Edition, 2005. Vintage, trade paperback, October 2016.

   Yes, Steve reviewed this recently, and no he didn’t much care for it, in fact he didn’t get far before James somewhat dense prose slowed him to a halt. This is a much more positive review of the same book.

   The Lighthouse is a somewhat slimmer book than many of the later James novels, a welcome respite from writers like Elizabeth George who seem determined to slay Sherwood Forest with their latest doorstop mystery. It is the 16th Adam Dalgliesh mystery and finds him at a crossroads in his life.

   Our sleuths are Commander Adam Dalgliesh of New Scotland Yard whose unit, consisting of D.I. Kate Miskin and Sgt. Francis Benton-Smith catches a possible murder on Combe Island off the Cornish coast. Dalgiesh is in the middle of an affair and torn about his feelings for the woman; Miskin involved with a former colleague; and Benton-Smith, a half-Indian bright young thing newly assigned to the unit falling in love with a woman he knows isn’t going to fall in love with him.

   To further muddy waters Miskin doesn’t much like Benton-Smith and resents his class, and he in turn is none to happy to have a woman who obviously dislikes him in charge of him. Add to the team the difficult forensic pathologist Professor Glenister, a woman in her mid-sixties, semi-retired with a tendency to pedantry, who is assigned to accompany the trio.

   Combe Island is another of James’s closed societies, the kind of place James loves to set her novels in, a place with a colorful history of pirates, wreckers, storms, and cruelty. Owned by the Holcombe family for generations it was left to be used as a sort of secular retreat for the great and famous who need a little down time and privacy.

   The PM hopes to hold a high end meeting on the island in the near future so security and discretion are of the highest order. Now one of the guests, novelist Nathan Oliver, has been found hanged in the old lighthouse which was burned in WWII and restored. None of the people on the island is particularly happy to see outsiders arrive, much less nosy police types asking awkward questions.

   As Emily Holcombe, last of the Holcombe’s observes, they aren’t the sort who usually visit the island.

   Steve found the going too slow and dense, and I don’t flaw him on that, but I enjoyed James carefully crafted prose. You don’t find passages like this too often today describing the scene as Dalgliesh leaves the room where the body has been examined:

   And now, thought Dalgliesh, the room will take possession of the dead. It seemed to him, it always did, that the air was imbued with the finality and the mystery of death; the patterned wallpaper, the carefully positioned chairs, the Regency desk, all mocking with their normality and permanence the transience of human life.

   It’s a good investigation. Dalgliesh finds his life threatened by an unexpected outside force and Miskin and Benton-Smith are forced to work together in a way neither is ready for. Of course the usual lies are uncovered, a crime dating back to WWII surfaces, raw emotions are laid bare, and Miskin and Benton-Smith are forced to face the killer before he strikes again in the deserted lighthouse of the title.

   This one proves a very physical case, and there are some fine passages late in the book where Benton-Smith puts his life in real danger simply retrieving evidence, the climbing scenes particularly well-written.

   I will add a small caveat. I’m afraid I spotted the killer, not because of clues or any mistake on James part, but because of a certain distaste both Miskin and Benton-Smith show for a rather fussy porcelain figure in the suspects living quarters. I refer to these as television moments because they are the literary equivalent of figuring out who the killer is because of the actor cast in the part. In a James novel tacky taste is motive enough to be a murderer.

   James does not write in short staccato sentences. She not an advocate of the hard-boiled style, and her books are more novels about murder than thrillers, detective novels more than detective stories, a subtle difference, but one I think true of her work as well as Ruth Rendell and Elizabeth George. She became more novelistic as she aged, and while her work is nowhere near as painful to read as John Le Carré’s tangled prose, she writes English prose ‘as she is written’ to borrow a phrase.

   Most readers are not going to race through this at a sitting. If, on the other hand, you invest some time, let James detail-oriented heavily descriptive prose envelop you, and become involved with Dalgiesh, Miskin, and Benton-Smith as well as the various suspects, it is a good book, a solid read and not a flashy or quick one. I enjoyed getting to know the people involved as human beings and not simply quickly sketched in character parts. James can be cinematic, but only in the sense of a Gainsborough Studio or Ivory and Merchant film.

   I have to admit there are things in James books that I enjoy that most people would not care for. When someone leaves a copy of Middlemarch for Dalgliesh to read, he thinks of it as “that safe stand-by for a desert island” — as good of a description of that book as I have ever read. A mention of William Morris wallpaper tells us all we need to know of a room and its potential inhabitants, and Miskin hearing “small agreeable sounds from the kitchen” as her lover makes coffee of morning is a perfect touch.

   Blue tongues licked the dry wood and the firelight strengthened, burnishing the polished mahogany and casting its glow over the spines of the leather covered books, the stone floor and the brightly colored rugs.

   I’ll read almost anything with passages like that.

   Perhaps the best line comes mid-book when Benton-Smith wonders if the murder of Nathan Oliver will harm the island’s reputation and Dalgliesh replies: “Combe will recover. The island has forgotten worse horrors than putting an end to Nathan Oliver.”

   Depending on what kind of mystery you are looking for, this is a fine example, especially for a book so late in a writer’s career and an ongoing series.

Reviewed by DAN STUMPF:


KING OF GAMBLERS. Paramount Pictures, 1937. Claire Trevor, Lloyd Nolan, Akim Tamiroff, Larry Crabbe, Helen Burgess, Porter Hall, Barlowe Borland. Writing credits: Doris Anderson (screenplay), Tiffany Thayer (story), Ben Hecht & Charles MacArthur (neither credited). Director: Robert Florey.

   King of Gamblers is an immensely fun little “B” from Paramount, one of a series put out by that studio in the late 30s. These films, with titles like Dangerous to Know, Hunted Men, Tip-Off Girls, Illegal Traffic and Parole Fixers offered fast-moving stories, stylish direction and strong acting from a revolving stock company that included Robert Preston, Akim Tamiroff, J. Carroll Naish, Buster Crabbe, Anthony Quinn and (almost invariably) Lloyd Nolan.

   But they are primarily triumphs of Production. Someone at Paramount cared enough to get directors like Robert Florey, writers (sometimes uncredited) like Ben Hecht, Horace McCoy and S. J. Perelman, and cameramen and editors who knew how to lend class to tight budgets. And it shows. You can watch almost any film from this series and get an hour of solid entertainment from it.

   King of Gamblers features Tamiroff in his usual Mob-Boss stint, Lloyd Nolan as his reporter-nemesis and Claire Trevor as (you guessed it) the girl they both love. But the show gets stolen by an actor even I never heard of named Barlowe Borland.

   Who? That’s right, I guess. Borland was an Edmund Gwenn type before there was Edmund Gwenn, usually type-cast as the fussy professor or prissy butler, but here quite effective as Tamiroff’s “arranger” Maybe he’s so chilling because he doesn’t try to act nasty; whether he’s setting up Trevor’s seduction, abetting a woman’s kidnapping, or covering up a murder, he keeps up a cheery Dickensian demeanor quite in keeping with the modest virtues of the film itself.

   One to look for.

MAX FRANKLIN – Charlie’s Angels. Ballantine, paperback original; adapted from the ABC-TV series. 1st printing, January 1977.

   I think perhaps this was actually the pilot episode that was adapted here, a made-for-TV movie shown in advance of the series itself. Charlie’s client is an heiress to a valuable estate in California wine country, or she will be if she’s allowed to return safely to prove her claim. The task of Kelly, Jill and Sabrina is to pave the way, solve a murder, and collect a quarter of a million dollars in the process.

   I don’t know why anybody would read this. People who watch the show must watch for visual attributes not possibly duplicated in print. People who don’t watch know what the are missing.

   Max Franklin is a pen-name of mystery writer Richard Deming, and he obviously read the script and has watched the show. I don’t think he added anything, however, and it all seemed pretty flat to me. Perry Mason never had much background personality either, but he did do his own thinking. What would the Angels do without Charlie?

Rating:   D.

— Reprinted from The MYSTERY FANcier, Vol. 1, No. 4, July 1977 (very slightly revised).


[UPDATE] 02-11-16.   With IMDb available now, and not back in 1977 when I wrote this, I can now confirm that my assumption in the first paragraph is correct. This novel did indeed adapt the pilot episode, first shown on ABC on 21 March 1976. There were five of these novelizations in all; presumably episodes of the series itself were adapted in later books.

REVIEWED BY WALTER ALBERT:         


MICHAEL REAVES & JOHN PELAN, Editors – Shadows Over Baker Street. Del Rey / Ballantine, trade paperback, 2003.

   This collection of stories in which the Sherlock Holmes canon is expanded by apocryphal tales confronting the dean of intellectual detectives with H. P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythos is probably one of those projects that sounded more promising in the proposal than it is has turned out to be in the execution.

   Holmes’ antipathy to the supernatural as a factor in his cases is well-documented and I rather think he would be embarrassed by the outlandish capers he is obliged to be engaged in to seek what is often a tentative solution to the Lovecraftian horrors intruding on his rational terrain.

   I’m certainly not opposed — as some fans of the genre are — to the use of supernatural elements in detective fiction (a use I feel can be documented throughout its distinguished history), but I’m not persuaded that this collection makes a strong case for Lovecraft’s particular, and very personal, chamber of horrors as a viable device for the crossover.

   This does not mean that I derived no pleasure from the collection. In small doses, over a period of time, the stories by a variety of authors such as 8rian Stapleford, Richard Lupoff, and Barbara Hambly afford a modicum of chills and thrills, albeit at times not far from the comically absurd. None of the stories has lingered with any particular resonance in my tattered memory, so I’ll just add that if you aren’t opposed to the supernatural in your short fiction and don’t find Lovecraft’s name a turnoff, you should have some fun with the stories.

   The wraparound jacket illustration by John Jude Palencar doesn’t make a good case for the monsters lurking between the book’s covers. (I was amused rather than horrified by the two creatures posing in the lower right hand comer of the front cover) but has one nice idea in the depiction of Sherlock Holmes as the Invisible Man. Come to think of it, that’s not such an inappropriate portrait since the traditional Holmes is largely absent from these stories.

— Reprinted from Walter’s Place #159, March 2004.

REVIEWED BY BARRY GARDNER:


MICHAEL COLLINS – Crime, Punishment, and Resurrection. PI Dan Fortune short stories. Donald I. Fine, hardcover, 1992. No paperback edition. Introduction by Sue Grafton.

   I’m not a big reader of short stories. It isn’t that I dislike them, it’s just that I like novels much more, and my time is sadly finite.

   I do like Michael Collins and Dan Fortune very much, and so couldn’t resist this. Two of the stories including the novella that closes the book are new, the rest (seven of them) reprinted from various magazines.

   The stories ranged in my estimation from barely adequate — “The Woman Who Ruined John Ireland” — to excellent — “The Big Rock Candy Mountain” and the novella, “Resurrection.” The latter is very nearly worth the price of the book. It is a grim and powerful story of a cult and its leader, written with all of Collins’ considerable skill.

   I am not sure, no, not sure at all, that there is a consistently better writer in the hardboiled field today than Michael Collins. Highly recommended.

– Reprinted from Fireman, Fireman, Save My Books #3, September 1992.

Reviewed by JONATHAN LEWIS:


DRACULA. Universal Pictures, 1979. Frank Langella (Count Dracula), Laurence Olivier (Professor Abraham Van Helsing), Donald Pleasence, Kate Nelligan, Trevor Eve, Jan Francis. Screenplay: W. D. Richter, based on a play by Hamilton Deane & John L. Balderston, based in turn on the novel by Bram Stoker. Music by John Williams. Director: John Badham.

   Although it’s been quite a while since I read Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897), there are quite a few aspects of the text that I remember quite well. Or at least I think I do. And not just plot points or vividly realized scenes such as when Dracula crawls down a wall. I’m talking about the work’s atmosphere, its sense of impending doom and sheer weirdness. Because let’s face it: >Dracula is an early example of modern weird fiction.

   Personally, I don’t think Stoker wrote the best vampire story ever told and I’ll leave it to you to decide which one you might think is the best. But I’ll readily admit that Stoker was remarkably effective in vividly describing a decidedly off-kilter world, one in which the notion of an undead Carpathian ruler haunting Victorian London doesn’t seem so far-fetched. Now, that’s an accomplishment and a testament to why Dracula is still read and appreciated to this very day.

   As far as film adaptations of Stoker’s novel go, I’m definitely of the opinion that the original Bela Lugosi version (1931) is the one I like the best (some people believe that the concurrent Spanish version is even better). To me, there’s something about Lugosi as Dracula that’s just so classic, so darn iconic that it’s difficult for me to fully imagine other actors stepping into the famed vampire’s shoes (or cape), though the late, great Christopher Lee comes pretty close.

   I remember watching Francis Ford Coppola’s 1992 version in the theater and didn’t come away super impressed. There were some great moments, to be sure, but it just seemed so lavish, so colorful that somehow I didn’t see it as a fully authentic realization of Stoker’s vision. Keanu Reeves, who I don’t dislike as an actor and who I thought was great in Speed (1994), didn’t seem to me to be an effective choice for the role of Jonathan Harker. And I don’t think I’m the only one.

   It was with this background that I finally got around to watching the 1979 film version, one that transports the entirety of the proceedings to England and is closest to the spirit, if not the story, of Stoker’s novel.

   Directed by John Badham, this one features Frank Langella as Dracula and Laurence Olivier as vampire hunter Abraham Van Helsing. Langella, it seems to me, is a fairly effective Dracula, particularly because the story played up the romantic and seductive aspect of the Dracula and Lucy relationship.

   Olivier, with a faux Dutch/Flemish accent, is an extraordinarily effective Van Helsing and really transforms the movie into a serene, melancholy operatic experience, one aided by John Williams’ hauntingly beautiful score. Olivier’s Van Helsing is a forlorn, world-weary warrior, someone who takes no pleasure in what he must do to stop Dracula.

   This version, which never garnered the same degree of critical attention as the original or Coppola’s version, is definitely worth watching for those who haven’t seen it. Also, for those who may have seen it decades ago and not again since then, it’s worth taking the time to rediscover how extraordinarily well this film holds up. It helps that, in this late 1970s version, Dracula crawls down a wall not once but twice. Chillingly sublime weirdness at its very best.

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