August 2009


REVIEWED BY WALTER ALBERT:         


A GENTLEMAN OF PARIS. Paramount Famous Lasky Corp., 1927. Adolphe Menjou, Shirley O’Hara, Arlette Marchal, Ivy Harris, Nicholas Soussanin. Screenplay by Chandler Sprague from the story “Bellamy the Magnificent” by Roy Horniman; titles by Herman Mankiewicz; photography by Hal Rosson. Director: Harry d’Abbadie d’Arrast. Shown at Cinevent 41, Columbus OH, May 2009.

   The cinematography by the noted Hal Rosson was compromised by the dark print that made some of the intertitles difficult to read.

A GENTLEMAN OF PARIS Menjou

   This was also to be a problem with at least two other films, one of which was so severely damaged that the last reel was almost unwatchable. (More on this later.)

   Adolphe Menjou is the dapper Marquis de Marignan whose complicated love life is managed with great skill by the apparently unflappable Joseph Talineau (Nicholas Soussanin), his butler and general manager of his household.

   The arrival of the Marquis’ fiancee, Yvonne Dufour, taxes even Joseph’s talents, but all seems to be under control until Joseph learns that his wife (their marriage seems to be one largely of convenience from her point of view) is one of his employer’s conquests.

   Stunned by the discovery, Joseph decides to destroy the Marquis by engineering a card game that appears to demonstrate that the Marquis is a cheat, a crime worse, in the eyes of society, than cheating with a friend’s wife. What begins as a frothy comedy of manners turns so dark that the only recourse for a gentleman is to take his own life.

A GENTLEMAN OF PARIS Menjou

   The sudden reversal that undermines Joseph’s plan and restores comedic balance may satisfy some conventional sense of wanting a restoration of the “natural” order but it throws the film off balance.

   Tragedy threatens and the momentary crossing of the boundary that separates comedy and tragedy in classical French theater may prove disconcerting to more than one spectator, especially since the resolution seems so hollow.

   The director had worked with Chaplin on A Woman of Paris in which Menjou plays a similar role as a gentleman about town, his stock in trade as an actor in the silent era, and this film, even viewed in a dark print, is an effective exercise in style.

   D’Abbadie d’Arast’s Hollywood career was apparently damaged by his reputation for being difficult and going over budget (reminding one of von Stroheim). He ended his career in 1933 with the direction of Topaze, which boasts fine performances by a cast headed by John Barrymore and Myrna Loy, closing his career with a film that played to his strengths as a director.

A REVIEW BY DAVID L. VINEYARD:         


VIKRAM CHANDRA - Sacred Games. HarperCollins, hardcover; first edition, January 2007. Trade paperback: Harper Perennial; 1st printing, December 2007.

VIKRAM CHANDRA Sacred Games

    At 900 plus pages a good many readers may pass this one by, which is a pity, because it is a remarkable thriller that also manages to be an epic of Mumbai (Bombay) and through it, modern India at the birth of the 21st century. Written by Vikram Chanda, who divides his time between Harvard and Mumbai, it has the advantage of a writer comfortable and capable in English and at home in the streets of his homeland.

    The hero of Sacred Games is Sartaj Singh, an Inspector with the Mumbai police, who is at war with Ganesh Gaitonde, the nation’s most wanted criminal and head of G Company, a sort of Indian Mafia with fingers in every pie. Their conflict will take the men across a wide spectrum of life in Mumbai.

A Sikh, known by his colleagues and the people of Mumbai’s streets as the ‘silky Sikh,’ Sartaj is divorced, over forty, and watching his career downspin, but he is determined to bring down Ganesh, who, despite his success as a criminal, is facing demons of his own, his very success isolating him from human contact.

    As the novel develops, equal parts Eugene Sue’s Mysteries of Paris, The Godfather, police procedural, and Bollywood movie, Chandra reveals more and more of both Sartaj and Ganesh, while his portrait of the swirling exotic and poverty-stricken city evolves in the background.

    “History has a shape …the universe has a design … For every insect, there is a predator. For every flower, there is a function. Some scientists still look at all this beauty, but insist it is result of natural selection, of chance and nothing else. They are blind. They are afraid. Pull back from the chance, look at it with the right vision, and chaos reveals its patterns.”

    Finding those patterns is the way Sartaj will locate and find Ganesh, and by the time the two men confront each other, Chandra has given us a full portrait of life in Mumbai: its people, its poverty, its beauty, and its flaws. Sartaj and Ganesh themselves are fully revealed, and their inevitable conflict becomes a clash as epic as Ahab and the white whale.

VIKRAM CHANDRA Sacred Games

    The novel is a love letter to Mumbai, but one written with an eye to its realities. Structured like an old fashioned triple-decker, its scope is focused by the conflict of these two men, a battle worthy of Holmes and Moriarity, or Jean Valjean and Javert, but cast in the form of a thriller, although one of which it can be said, as it was of Tolstoy’s War and Peace, all life is in it. All the life of Mumbai anyway.

    In Sartaj, we have a hero as complex as Maigret and as human, and in Ganesh an antagonist as complex and troubled as Michael Corleone, who finds the only man who can understand him or forgive him is the man sworn to destroy him. Like all great protagonist/antagonist pairs, the two men both compliment and contradict each other. Their battle is an epic one that sweeps in its wake all of the city they inhabit. Only one of the two can emerge from the battle: the one best equipped to grow within himself and face his own reality.

    Sacred Games may not be for every reader, but if you ever want more from a thriller, good writing, ambitious narrative expertly controlled, and pure old fashioned storytelling, this is the book for you. That is also a first class thriller is a tribute to Chandra’s skills (and the extensive vocabulary of Indian words and slang at the end of the book).

    As India’s role in the world grows more important we can look forward to getting a glimpse of Indian popular literature, and with this more serious book we will have some familiarity with the subject. In recent years Indian crime has figured as a background in John Irving’s Son of the Circus, and David Gregory Roberts Shantaram, both a far cry from the charm and gentle wit of H.R.F. Keating’s Inspector Ghote.

    Read this one. It is a major work, and yet it reads like a thriller, a portrait of a world alien to most of us and at the same time utterly familiar and real. Despite its length and depth, you won’t want to put this one down. It is the kind of book you can move inside of and inhabit. And unlike most thrillers you won’t want this one to end.

    But don’t get a hernia reading it. It is really a hefty tome, though surprisingly, one that doesn’t read that way. Epic and compelling aren’t always words you can use together, but both fit Vikram Chanda’s Sacred Games.

RICHARD S. WHEELER – Flint’s Truth.

Forge, hardcover; 1st printing, May 1998. Paperback reprint: October 2000.

RICHARD WHEELER Flint's Truth

   The first of itinerant newspaper printer Sam Flint’s adventures in the Old West was recorded in Flint’s Gift. This is the second; the third, forthcoming, is Flint’s Honor. And if this book is any measure, all three are worth tracking down and reading.

   Moving from settlement to settlement with a printing press, several cases of movable type, newsprint and ink is not a task or career for the faint-hearted, nor is setting up shop in a town such as Oro Blanco, where the powers-that-be prefer that certain secrets stay hidden.

   As Sam says on page 63: “You’d be amazed the amount of news that people don’t wish to see in print.” At stake is a fortune in land and gold.

   This is a morality tale written in the guise of a western novel, with most of the characters taking stock parts. In fuller roles, though, besides Sam himself, are the philosophical Mexican priest who befriends him, and Libby, the skinny 13-year-old girl who becomes his right-hand aide. Each in their own way becomes a key to the tale, which is brutally honest and takes an ironic twist or two before a form of justice prevails.

   Here’s a solid, picturesque glimpse into a unique time and place, one that rings a resonant chord of truth and right, and even better — as you can expect of all of Wheeler’s work — here’s a book that’s completely and compulsively readable.

— Reprinted from Durn Tootin’ #2, July 2003       (slightly revised).

EDDIE MULLER – Shadow Boxer.   Scribner, hardcover; 1st printing, January 2003.

EDDIE MULLER Shadow Boxer

   There’s only one thing wrong with this throwback to the 1940s era of sports-based pulp fiction. Well, make it two. While Billy Nichols, who tells the story, is a crack San Francisco sportswriter nicknamed Mr. Boxing, there is not much in this book about either boxers or the fight game.

   What it’s really about is the continuation of the murder case begun in Muller’s first novel, The Distance. It may be that the man Nichols brought to justice in the early book is not entirely guilty. The dead woman was the wife of boxer Hack Escalante — and not so incidentally, she was the also the one Nichols was having a secret affair with.

   It’s a complicated tale, and if this is a new trend in detective fiction, it ought to stop right now. Without having read the first book, it’s impossible to know exactly who is who, and why or why not, and to whom. As detective fiction, it’s spinach, and I hate spinach.

   As a writer of historical fiction, Muller has San Francisco and its seedy (and not-so-seedy) environs down cold. As a writer of hard-boiled pulp fiction, Muller certainly gives you your full money’s worth. Or even double, considering Nichols’ single paragraph longer-than-one-page rant on pages 152-153. Boiled down, it’s a long improvised version, with several choruses, of the old adage, “No good deed ever goes unpunished.”

   This impromptu interjection is a work of noirish perfection, verging on Raymond Chandler territory, but the story that surrounds it is only better than average. What’s missing is an essential if not absolutely vital ingredient, a self-contained coherency. It’s too bad. It could have been a contender.

— May 2003



[UPDATE] 08-31-09.   I’ve always meant to, but so far I haven’t done the obvious thing and start over by reading the two books about Billy Nichols in the right order. But I haven’t — in fact, I’ve yet to read the first one — and my review is based on the fact that Shadow Boxer is the only one I have.

   Wondering, though, why this book never came out in paperback, and why there was never another book in the Billy Nichols series, I found out why on Eddie Muller’s website, in which he says, in part:

  “I tried to do some things in this book that might be considered subversive for hardboiled crime fiction … Scribner [pulled] the plug on the Billy Nichols series before he even had a chance to get his legs under him. The publisher just didn’t get it, and there’s nothing you can do about it.”

REVIEWED BY DAN STUMPF:         


THE MUMMY’S TOMB. Universal, 1942. Lon Chaney Jr., Dick Foran, John Hubbard, Elyse Knox, George Zucco. Director: Harold Young.

THE MUMMY'S TOMB

THE MUMMY’S GHOST.. Universal, 1944. Lon Chaney Jr., John Carradine, Robert Lowery, Ramsay Ames, Barton MacLane, George Zucco. Director: Reginald Le Borg.

THE MUMMY'S GHOST

THE MUMMY’S CURSE.. Universal, 1944. Lon Chaney Jr., Peter Coe, Virginia Christine, Kay Harding, Dennis Moore. Director: Leslie Goodwins.

THE MUMMY'S CURSE

   The Mummy (1932; reviewed by Steve way back here) is one of the great romantic films, and The Mummy’s Hand (1940) is a snappy little programmer, but the three Mummy films with Lon Chaney Jr. are the plodding, proletarian work-horses of the Monster Movie.

   Slow-moving, badly-cast and sloppily-written, they have always struck me as examples of what a day-to-day Grind a Monster’s life must be. Kharis stumbles along playing out his curse with no joy, no sign of satisfaction, preying on the Old and Slow-Moving like he was stamping out Widgets on an assembly line, which is a very apt description of the way these films were produced.

THE MUMMY'S GHOST

   Ben Pivar, the producer responsible for the series, was by some accounts a man of legendary Bad Taste, a filmmaker whose idea of Art was a story that could incorporate as much stock footage and as few sets as possible.

   Indeed, his Mummy movies seem to be made up mostly of clips from earlier films, like youngsters devouring their parents.

   Yet the Kharis films taken as a whole, convey a theme of surprising perversity: alone among Movie Monsters, Kharis fulfills his destiny. He destroys the defilers of Ananka’s tomb and twice reclaims his reincarnated Princess.

   Yet, like the hero of a David Goodis novel, he never succeeds on his own terms. Each film ends with him joylessly sinking back into the grimy milieu from whence he came at the start, no wiser, no happier, and no longer loved.

   Which is a pretty odd message to come from a low-brow producer like Pivar. Just a pity the films themselves are so damn boring.

SHOOT TO KILL. Screen Arts Pictures, 1947. Russell Wade, Susan [Luana] Walters, Edmond MacDonald, Douglas Blackley (Robert Kent), Nestor Paiva. Director: William Berke.

SHOOT TO KILL 1947

   This tough-minded B-programmer from 1947 was included in a box set of Noir films, and in that category, it’s certainly marginal, if not a full-fledged entry. It’s told in flashback form, with at least one flashback with the first one, but not confusingly – but not to the story’s advantage, either, when it comes down to it. (I dislike prologues in books, too.)

   It begins with the new D. A. (Edmond MacDonald) being found dead in a car, having gone over one of those cliffs that are always on the outskirts of town in B-movies like this one. In this case, though, what makes the headline of the day is that also in the car is one of the town’s biggest gangsters (Nestor Paiva), also dead. Surviving the crash is the D.A.’s recently wedded wife (Susan Walters).

   The flashback begins as the latter tells her story to the sympathetic ear of reporter ‘Mitch’ Mitchell, played by soft-spoken Russell Wade. None of the players in this picture ever made it big in Hollywood, as I’m sure you’ve realized already, but most of them had long careers in movies very much like this one – speaking budget-wise, of course.

   Susan Walters, most often billed in her many movie appearances as Luana Walters – many of them westerns – was making a bit of a comeback in Shoot to Kill, her first film in several years, but to little avail, making only five more after this one (including a short role as Superman’s mother in the 1948 serial). Still very beautiful at the age of 35, she also shows more weariness than the role calls for, caused, one imagines, by tragedy and other problems in her personal life.

SHOOT TO KILL 1947

   Maybe I ought to take back my deprecating remarks about the flashback format. The process of simply sitting here and writing these comments up seems to have cleared my brain and made it (the flashback format) work better for me than it had before. What it does, I have to admit, is to introduce an element of mystery, a puzzle that would have been harder to create if the tale had to build up to it in purely linear fashion.

   More. There are plenty of dark shadows in this one, along with a dash of dark-edged violence as a double-edged bonus. Add plenty of mysterious goings-on and some better than average plot twists along the way, making the 64 minutes of running time just the right length for half an evening’s worth of entertainment. The other half I leave to you.

A Review by ALLEN J. HUBIN:


MICHAEL INNES – Death by Water.

Dodd Mead, hardcover, 1968. Paperback reprints include: Berkley, 1969; Perennial, 1991. UK title: Appleby at Allington: Victor Gollancz, hc, 1968.

MICHAEL INNES Death by Water

   Michael Innes, from whom I have come to expect great things, did not enchant me with a recent non-series mystery, Money from Holme. But Sir John Appleby returns in the present book, and the Innes magic is still operating.

   Sir John seems to have retired to the country from Scotland Yard, and should be (as he recalls) “engaged in moving decently from bedtime to bedtime, from lunch to dinner.” One of these dinners is as a guest of Owain Allington, who has put some recently obtained wealth to the task of reacquiring the ancestral mansion.

   The evening sees the discovery of the first of a series of bodies, all apparently accidentally deceased. Appleby, against his own inclinations and contrary to his own reasoning, finds himself drawn into the affair and smelling an unpleasant odor therein, and after a false start or two tracks the problem to its solution.

   Death by Water is peopled with some wonderful comic characters, and others not so comic. Innes clearly enjoys playing with words, and fortunately his enjoyment is richly shared by the reader.

   Do try Death by Water — it’s a pleasure.

– From The Armchair Detective, Vol. 1, No. 3, April 1968.



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