Reviews


BRIDGET McKENNA – Murder Beach. Diamond, paperback original; 1st printing, December 1993.

   There’s been a recent wave of new female PI’s in recent months, in case you haven’t noticed. Unfortunately there doesn’t seem to be much to distinguish this first case of PI Caley Burke from the ones most of the others have been having.

   She’s divorced, more or less on firendly terms with her ex-husband, has been apprenticed to an older, male PI before trying to crack a case on her own, has red hair, and she’s personally involved in the case before she’s even hired. This time it’s the grandfather of two close friends from high school days who’s been accused of murder, and the cop on the case is someone Caley had an off-and-on romance with about the same time.

   There’s a tricky balance that exists between competent mystery writing and mediocre, and my only other observation is that Bridget McKenna seems to be walking that line with no problem at all.

— Reprinted from Nothing Accompliced #4, November 1993.


[UPDATE] 04-20-17. There were only three books in the Caley Burke series. I read and reviewed the third one, Caught Dead, back in February; you can read my comments here. I liked it better than I seem to have cared for this one, calling it better than average. Someday I may come across a copy of the second book in the series. I almost never read the books in a series in the proper order.

THE BLACK TENT. J. Arthur Rank, UK, 1956. Donald Sinden, Anthony Steel, Anna Maria Sandri, André Morell, Terence Sharkey, Donald Pleasence. Screenplay: Bryan Forbes & Robin Maugham. Director: Brian Desmond Hurst.

   Filmed in color on location in Libya, what you see on the screen in The Black Tent is often quite spectacular. Unfortunately this is one of those “travelogue” movies common in the late 50s — lots of great scenery in a far away location but not nearly enough story line to make you wonder if the effort in staying all the way to the end was worth the effort.

   As the movie opens, it appears that a British officer, thought lost in the war ten years earlier, just may still be alive. If so, he would resume his role as owner of a vast and very valuable English estate. His brother undertakes the journey to north Africa to investigate.

   The trail leads to a Bedoin tribe which, as it turns out, rescued Captain David Holland (Anthony Steel) during the war. Saving him from his injuries, he was gradually brought back to health, thanks to the loving care of the sheik’s daughter (a very young-looking Anna Maria Sandri).

   If I were to tell you that this is a romance novel more than it is a war novel, you can probably write the story yourself from this point on. I hesitate saying more myself, mostly because there is so little to tell.

   But if I were to say to you that the war scenes take up less than five minutes of the movie, while the marriage ceremony goes on for at least 15 minutes (or at least it seems that way), you will see what I mean.

   There is at the end a very large decision to be made, one that, when revealed, should come as no surprise to anyone watching. All it does. in spite of some very nice photography and one or two good scenes — no more — is to emphasize the overall lack of luster the movie had all along.

HARRY WHITTINGTON – A Ticket to Hell. Gold Medal 862, paperback original; 1st printing, March 1959. Black Lizard, paperback, 1987.

   Ric Durazo, a man with a past (as we eventually find out), driving through the New Mexico desert in a brand new Porsche, is also a man on a mission, with a job to do. We don’t don’t know that for sure, but we can sense it. On a whim he picks up a young boy hitch-hiking. The young kid pulls a gun on him. Ric slows the car to 35 and dumps the kid out of the car, and he drives on.

   Stopping at a motel, perhaps one prearranged, he spots a man across the way about to kill his wife by faking an accidental gas leak in their room. The man goes off in his car. Ric saves the girl. Can he convince her to call the cops? No. To call her father? No. For whatever reason fate wills it, and feminine unreason, the two of them seem to be permanently tied to the other.

   In the meantime he has a job to do, and $250,000 in the trunk of his car has something to do with it. He beats up the husband and takes it on the lam, with the cops hot on his trail, high up into the mountains, Eve still with him. And did I mention that he still has a job to do?

   If you like your crime fiction to have a pace that never slackens, never slows down for a minute, not even once, look no further. The more you read, the faster you will go. Guaranteed.

REVIEWED BY DAN STUMPF:


SKIPALONG ROSENBLOOM. Eagle-Lion/United Artists, 1951. “Slapsie Maxie” Rosenbloom, Max Baer, Jackie Coogan, Hilary Brooke, Fuzzy Knight, Raymond Hatton. Written by Eddie Forman and Dean Reisner. Directed by the indefatigable Sam Newfield.

   A surprisingly sharp comedy in the anything-goes mode of Hellzapoppin and Never Give a Sucker an Even Break, co-written by a guy who went on to Dirty Harry and other prestigious Clint Eastwood flicks, and helmed by a director who routinely churned out a clunker or two every week for PRC.

   Let me pause here and reflect on something I read so long ago I’d most forgot about it, let alone who wrote it and where I read it, but it goes something like this: When we think of the B-movie classics, we tend to remember the noirs, the westerns and the horror films, because tragedy is easy to do. It’s hard work doing comedy and practically impossible to do it in a low-budget film.

   Skipalong Rosenbloom is a happy exception, performed with gusto by a willing ensemble, laced with a few surprisingly subtle jokes (Maybe too subtle for its own good; did anybody but me laugh when Jackie Coogan kicks an obnoxious brat and snarls, “Child actors are murder.” ?) and directed with the slapdash abandon one normally associates with Same Newfield — only here it works.

   The whole thing is framed as 50s television show, complete with commercials, obviously satirizing the Hopalong Cassidy craze of that time. Maxie Rosenbloom takes the title part (surprise!) and runs with it, obviously delighted to be the star of the piece. Max Baer is just as good, snarling threats and gloating wonderfully at each new dastardly plot. Hillary Brooke makes an enthusiastic frontier vamp, with just the right amount of over-playing, while Western Icons Fuzzy Knight and Raymond Hatton lend a bit of authenticity to the whole thing — particularly Fuzzy as Sneaky Pete, cinema’s most enthusiastic henchman ever.

   As for the film itself, I’m not going to repeat any of the outrageous jokes; take my word for it, they anticipate what Mad comic books would start dong the next year — Jackie Coogan even looks a bit like Melvin. Raymond Hatton lives in a ranch house about the size of a tool shed, and at one point when Sneaky Pete wants to eavesdrop, he simply sticks his head in the window, unnoticed by all.

   From this we go on to chases, gun battles, fist-fights, falling off a mountain and a particularly brutal gopher-beating. That’s right: a gopher-beating. This is, in short, a film in its own little world, like no other movie ever — and I mean that in a good way.

REVIEWED BY BARRY GARDNER:


GEORGE V. HIGGINS – Bomber’s Law. Henry Holt, hardcover, 1993; trade paperback, 1994.

   If you’ve read George Higgins before, you know what to expect. If you haven’t, expect dialogue. Lots of it. 95% of the book. Critics love it and lavish all sorts of superlatives on it, finding his feel for the speech pattern of the denizens of working/lower/criminal class Massachusetts the best ever. Most of them have, anyway.

   A state cop has returned from banishment in the hinterlands to take over a long-running surveillance of a bigtime organized crime boss. He’s taking over from an old cop who had made his life miserable as a rookie. He’s got his own problems, career- and marriage-wise. How it all works out is the story.

   The problem with using dialogue almost exclusively to define characters an narrate a story is that it’s awfully hard to follow the storyline without reading word for me laborious word. If you like Higgins’ style enough you my not mind, but I did. A lot.

   I kept wanting to skip ahead and see what was going to happen; but I was afraid to, because there was no way to tell when the next paragraph would contain something crucial to the story. I think that Higgins’ writing has become self-indulgent and almost a caricature of itself; but if you’ve liked him in the past, try it and see what you think.

— Reprinted from Ah Sweet Mysteries #12, March 1994.

PETER SAXON – The Vampires of Finistère. The Guardians #4. Berkley X1808, paperback original; 1st US printing, April 1970. First published in the UK by Howard Baker, hardcover, 1970.

   I’m not too sure of the numbering, even though the cover of the Berkley paperback clearly says this is #4 in the series. But I also believe that this is the last of the series, and there are five of them in all. (The numbering may be Berkley’s doing. One of the books, The Curse of Rathlaw, was published first in this country by Lancer.)

   As for the author, there was no Peter Saxon. That was a house name used by many authors, including W Howard Baker, who used it as his own personal pseudonym at first, primarily for Sexton Blake novels, then used by other authors for other books and series.

   The author of Vampires is generally accepted as being Rex Dolphin, whose name and work has come up for discussion previously on this blog with a review of a tale he wrote for Weird Tales entitled “Off the Map.”

   I have read online some speculation that The Guardians may have been the first team of occult detectives, fighting among other evils in the world the following: vampirism, witchcraft, black magic, voodoo and sorcery. (I am cribbing from a list displayed on the back cover of the book at hand.)

   The members of The Guardians, based in a strangely out-of-the-way location in London, are:

Gideon Cross: Founder and most powerful member in terms of his own occult powers. He generally does not leave the team’s headquarter building. Sometimes his actual motives in their various investigations seem hazy.

Steven Kane: The leader, rugged and individualistic, a former professor anthropology with a vast knowledge of the occult.

Father John Dyball: A priest and a former wartime chaplain. Very handy when exorcisms and/or prayers are needed.

Lionel Marks: No psychic powers but a fine detective and a good man to have along when the going gets tough. A very minor participant in this adventure.

Anne Ashby: A beautiful mysterious woman with many secrets and psychic powers. A strong connection exists between herself and Gideon Cross, but none of the other members of the team are sure what it is.

   In this particular investigation, The Guardians come to the assistance of a young man whose girl friend disappeared while they were traveling in an isolated region of Brittany. Getting off a main road they leave their car and try to walk to the sea, but instead find themselves caught up in a pagan ritual harking back to ancient times.

   The first two-thirds of the book are simply terrific. Dolphin, if he indeed was the author, was a very descriptive writer, evoking both eeriness, and a sense of wonder, fear and dread in almost every passage he writes. It is easy to believe, once you fall under his spell, that there could be an isolated village on the coast of France where if anyone visits, they never come back a second time.

   Unfortunately, in terms of a team effort, this is very nearly a one-man show. For most of the book, Steven Kane is the only member who has any active role in trying to track down the missing girl. (She is a virgin, by the way. Her father forbade the trip if there were going to be any funny business going on between her and her boy friend.)

   Alas, that also means that Ann Ashby’s active presence is contained in only a few pages at the beginning. I’d like to learned more about her. The ending is perfunctory, but the getting there is quite a bit of fun. And, yes, that scene on the cover of the Berkley paperback, so evocatively portrayed by artist Jeff Jones, is actually in the book.

REVIEWED BY JONATHAN LEWIS:


TWO ON A GUILLOTINE. Warner Brothers, 1965. Connie Stevens, Dean Jones, Cesar Romero, Parley Baer, Virginia Gregg, Connie Gilchrist, John Hoyt, Russell Thorson. Producer-director: William Conrad.

   Two on a Guillotine, a decidedly uneven Gothic horror movie, features two esteemed character actors who will be quite familiar to anyone who watched more than their fair share of theatrical films and television from the 1960s; namely, Cesar Romero (perhaps best remembered now for portraying The Joker on Batman) and Dean Jones (star of The Love Bug in the movies and Ensign O’Toole on TV). The third star in Two on a Guillotine is singer-actress Connie Stevens, the lead female protagonist, a role that was meant to be a more serious, adult one than the parts she played in largely teenage exploitation fare in the late 1950s (Dragstrip Riot).

   In Two on a Guillotine, a film that well-known character actor William Conrad both produced and directed, Connie Stevens has a dual role. She portrays two different, but related, characters – a mother at the very beginning of the film and then later, her daughter. When we are first introduced to Stevens in her role as Melinda Duquesne, wife of the magician, Duquesne (Cesar Romero). She’s also a star in his show, playing the role of a damsel in distress with the seemingly magical ability to escape from the horrible fate that Duquesne sets out for her as part of his theatrical act. As the movie begins, we see her tied up with her arms around her head, with a man pushing a sword into her. But it is all an illusion, a trick. For she was never really in danger and the whole thing, as the camera soon demonstrates, was merely part of a stage act.

   Things seem all right between Duquesne and his wife, although there apparently are some difficulties in balancing their professional lives with caring for their young daughter. It’s not that their daughter is physically ill; it’s just that in his life, she seems to be something of any afterthought to the magician. He seems far more concerned with his newest and latest magic trick: a guillotine – with a razor sharp blade, no less. It’s an instrument of death and terror straight out of revolutionary France.

   The film quickly shifts in time to some two decades later, with the next scene at Duquesne’s funeral in sunny California. A young woman rushes up to the area where the coffin is located and the mourners are gathered. She looks just like Melinda Duquesne as we saw her earlier, but that’s impossible, for she hasn’t aged a day. The viewer attentive to the tropes of Gothic horror movies such as the one utilized in The Tomb of Ligeia (1964) will quickly recognize what’s transpiring here. Namely, that this beautiful young woman isn’t Melinda at all, but she is Duquesne’s daughter, Cassie portrayed now by Stevens in her second role.

   Among those noticing Cassie at the funeral is intrepid reporter Val Henderson (Dean Jones), who soon learns that Duquesne’s last will and testament specified that his daughter Cassie inherit a fortune on the condition that she agrees to stay in his Hollywood mansion for seven nights. This leads us to the basis for the crux of the film: why would Duquesne want his estranged daughter to stay in his house? Is it possible that he’s really not really dead after all and has a magician’s trick up his sleeve?

   Those familiar with haunted house movies surely know the basic outline of what comes next. At first, Cassie decides that she will stay in the house – after all, she feels as if she deserves her estranged father’s fortune – and initially appears to give little regard to what might happen next. Soon, with Val and an adorable white house rabbit at her side, Cassie begins to encounter weird goings-on in the house. So much so that Val, who has fallen in love with her in the meantime, becomes determined that no harm come to her.

   Unfortunately, as the story continues to unfold, the tone of the movie becomes increasingly uneven. Shifting from moments of light, innocent romance between Cassie and Val to moments of tension and fright, Two on a Guillotine ends up suffering from an identity crisis. Is it a horror movie with light, comic overtones or a quirky, offbeat feature more indebted to René Claire’s I Married a Witch (1942)? Or was it intended to be a darker, more psychologically brooding horror films such as the similarly themed The Mad Magician (1954), starring Vincent Price in the title role?

   One possibility that may help explain the film’s tonal unevenness of this film is that the movie’s screenwriters, John Kneubuhl and Henry Slesar, are known to have worked primarily in television, a medium where one needed to be particularly cautious how far one could push the envelope. Indeed, there is definitely a flat, television feel to Two on a Guillotine. Cinematographer Sam Leavitt had a prolific career in Hollywood, but he didn’t lend this story the type of exceptional photography that would have elevated it from competent to something more memorable.

   One notable exception is found in the film’s singular dream montage sequence. Distraught and confused, Cassie has a bizarre, hallucinatory dream in which she images various scenarios that might explain, at least in part, what is transpiring all around her. It’s an experimental sequence in an otherwise lackluster film, at least in terms of photography.

   In terms of the film’s direction, credit goes to veteran character actor William Conrad who imparts the movie with a workmanlike quality. Although he was better known for his achievements in radio and as a television actor (Cannon, Jake and the Fat Man) who often portrayed a heavy or, in the case of exceptional, albeit nearly forgotten, film noir Tension (1949), in which he portrayed a Mexican-American police detective, William Conrad also worked as a behind the camera as a director as well.

   His primary work in that regard was in television rather than in cinema, directing episodes of genre-based series, both well known and obscure, including Highway Patrol, Bold Venture, The Rifleman, Bat Masterson, Route 66, and Naked City. Still, Conrad directed three other feature films: a western entitled The Man from Galveston (1963) starring Jeffrey Hunter, Preston Foster, and James Coburn, and the thrillers The Blood Runs Cold (1965) and Brainstorm (1965).

   In contrast to Conrad’s rather prosaic direction, the movie’s score works well quite with the subject matter at hand. Max Steiner, the legendary Hollywood composer whose work include such classic works of American cinema as King Kong (1933), Gone With the Wind (1939), Casablanca (1942), and The Searchers (1956) is credited with a score which is neither too intrusive nor overwrought. The film’s initial scene (discussed above) in which Duquesne “stabs” Cassie’s mother is accompanied by music that fits the mood perfectly. Foreboding and chaotic, Steiner’s musical accompaniment to this scene opens the movie with an intensity that fits the on screen happenings to a hilt.

[WARNING] In the next two paragraphs, more of the story may be told than perhaps you would care to know, especially if you have not seen the film and think you might like to, someday.

   Unfortunately, there’s then little excitement and intensity in the movie until the ending when the big reveal happens, and Cassie learns that that her father is still alive. She also finds out that her mother died in a gruesome guillotine accident when she and her father were attempting to prepare for his next big act decades ago. And to make matters worse for her, Duquesne has come to believe that Cassie is really her mother, Melinda. Apparently he has brought her to the mansion so that he can “perfect” his guillotine trick.

   This is where the film’s tone most strikingly shifts from playful to intense. Duquesne’s reappearing act, as it were, reveals a dark, sinister underbelly at the heart of this film. He truly is mad and maniacal. The lighthearted, albeit contrived, romance between Cassie and Val disappears under the weight of the revelation that Cassie’s mother’s body is buried out somewhere in the yard and that her father is a homicidal maniac.

   Even though Romero was a highly competent character actor, his portrayal of Duquesne is not nearly as memorable as Vincent Price’s portrayal of Gallico in John Brahms’s aforementioned The Mad Magician. Also of note: Romeo himself does a disappearing act of sorts during most of the film, and has probably less than a total of ten minutes of screen time. Indeed, for most of the film, we just are witness to Cassie and Val investigating the strange goings-on in Duquesne’s seemingly abandoned mansion.

   In conclusion, Two on a Guillotine had the potential, at least on paper, to be a stronger, more sinister feature. The decision to play up the romance between Cassie and Val, not to mention the casting of Dean Jones who had a career of playing particularly non-threatening characters, made it nearly impossible for the film to end up being the fright fest that the movie posters portrayed it to be.

   Instead, the movie remains an historical curiosity at best, a black and white horror film produced a time when most were being released in color and a vehicle for Connie Stevens to pursue a more serious and mature acting career, one that never successfully got off the ground in the way that she had intended. While it has its moments, this decidedly quirky movie, by attempting to package lighthearted romance with psychological horror, ends up being an uneven mélange of genres and a rather average horror film, albeit one not without some charm.

REVIEWED BY DAVID VINEYARD:


FISTFUL OF DIAMONDS. Balcázar Producciones Cinematográficas, Spain-Italy, 1967. Original title (Spanish): El hombre del puño de oro, Also released as L’umo dal pugno d’oro (Italian). Germán Cobos, Erika Blanc, Frank Russell, Tomás Torres, Screenplay: Mario Colluci as Ray Colloway. Director: Jaime Jesús Balcázar.

   In 1967 the Eurospy craze was already running a bit thin, and this film with Eurospy star Germán Cobos (often playing Danny O’Connor aka Agent Z-55 in his spy outings) was designed to open up a new venue, the hard boiled American private eye. It did not, but for what it is, this is well worth your time.

   Cobos is New York private eye Joe Galligan, a hard-drinking, hard-hitting, and hard-punching example of the breed with a soft heart for his pre-teen black neighborhood girl/secretary and kids in general. We meet him as he is about to be hired by beautiful Linda Moore (Erika Blanc) whose sister was killed the by gangster Norman Krasner (Frank Russell), who double-crossed her and his other partners and ambushed them at a buy in where the price was a suitcase full of diamonds. Erika wants revenge and the ice.

   Galligan (not Callahan as one review on IMDb has it, and Clark in the English language version for no real reason) accompanies Linda to the house where the exchange was supposed to be made and is waylaid by two of Krasner’s thugs. They take the girl and leave him unconscious.

   Determined to get the girl back, Galligan finds the cops won’t talk about the well-connected Krasner, and neither will the usual informers, but he discovers Krasner is in Istanbul and heads that way.

   In Istanbul Galligan ties up with Joy Boy (Tomás Toros) his old friend, a Texas-born Hispanic who owns a club, and together they set out to recover the girl and the diamonds, and shut down Krasner.

   Despite some eighteen-wheeler worthy plot holes and a title song that may keep you from watching the film (the score is great otherwise), this is good private eye stuff, with Cobos a likable and not too superhuman sleuth, Blanc beautiful and smart, and Russell a fine villain wielding a South African sjambok to make his point.

   The Turkish scenery is handsomely filmed, there are some first-rate fight scenes including a comic one in Joy Boy’s club, and a deadly serious one in a boatyard at night. The ending is a humdinger with a spectacular setting even if it is a bit contrived, and a surprisingly, but satisfyingly brutal, somber final note.

   Find it with subtitles if you can; the dubbing on the English language version is terrible. Thanks to YouTube, the complete Italian version is below, at least for now:

DEAD AGAIN. Paramount Pictures, 1991. Kenneth Branagh, Andy Garcia, Derek Jacobi, Emma Thompson (and Robin Williams). Director: Kenneth Branagh.

   A California home for orphans and indigent children asks a breezy young PI named Mike Church to investigate a strange intruder-visitor there, an equally young woman who is unable to speak, with no memory of who she is, but who has the most violent nightmares after she barricades herself inside her room at night.

   With the aid of a friendly hypnotist, together they discover that one of her past lives has apparently converged upon her present one, with an old murder case that made headlines in 1949 at the core of the matter. There are a couple of other twists to come, neither one of which were expected (by me) at all.

   This is an utterly marvelous motion picture, a true Gothic neo-noir, but one that I’m sure I would have missed altogether if it weren’t for the private eye trapping. Karma-freak or not, don’t make the same mistake. And while this is Branagh’s movie all the way through, it’s also the first time I have seen Emma Thompson in action. What a revelation as an actor she is. It won’t be the last time I’ll see her in a movie, I can assure you of that.

PostScript:   Absolutely incidentally, and for no extra fee, this motion picture also contains the greatest advertisement for non-smoking that you can ever imagine.

— Reprinted from Nothing Accompliced #4, November 1993, slightly revised.



BASIL HEATTER – Virgin Cay. Gold Medal k1310, paperback original; 1st printing, June 1963.

   The primary protagonist in Virgin Cay, just as it was in A Night Out (reviewed here ), also by Basil Heatter, is once again a dedicated boatsman plying his trade in the Gulf of Mexico off the Florida shore, and if anything, even more so.

   But “plying his trade” is not entirely accurate. When asked what he does for a living (page 12), Gus Robinson’s reply is:

    “A man alone on a boat doesn’t have to make much of what you call a living. To me living and sailing are the same thing and when you’re out at sea there’s no place to spend money even if you have it, which I don’t.”

   Asking the question is a fine-looking woman whose home on Virgin Cay is where Gus washes ashore after his boat goes down about ten miles out to sea. They hit it off so well that before he leaves the next morning, the delectable Clare Loomis has a business proposition for him, one that if accepted will net Gus a cool $20,000.

   The proposition? Murder. Ordinarily Gus wouldn’t think twice before refusing, but without a boat, he’d be lost trying to survive on land. The next question: who would he have to kill? And there, as it turns out, is where the rub comes in.

   The first twist in the story is an obvious one, or it was to me and I suspect it will be to you as well. After that, though, the beauty of this story is that you, the reader, have no idea of what happens from there.

   But what does happen will have you reading the last 40 pages about as fast as you can turn them. Is the ending a happy one? I won’t tell you. Why spoil your fun?

   Heatter is a more polished writer than he was in A Night Out, written some seven years earlier, but this time around, while the sense of doomed futility is there, it is not nearly as strong. This is a suspense novel more than it is a crime thriller, and even then, the emphasis is on being a novel.

   In that regard, there are some not-so-subtle hints of John D. MacDonald in this later book, most evident when Gus reflects with dismay upon what the Florida landscape is starting to become. He’s a boat person, through and through, which I suspect was as true about the author as it is about Gus Robinson.

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