REVIEWED BY MICHAEL SHONK:
HARRY O — Season 2, Part 1.
HARRY O. ABC / Warner Brothers. Season 2, Part 1. Fall 1975, Thursday at 10-11pm. Created by Howard Rodman. Cast: David Janssen as Harry Orwell, Anthony Zerbe as Lieutenant K.C. Trench, Paul Tulley as Sergeant Roberts. Recurring Cast: Farrah Fawcett-Majors as Sue Ingham, Bill Henderson as Spencer Johnson, Les Lannom as Lester Hodges, Margaret Avery as Ruby Dome (aka Ruby Lawrence), Barbara Leigh as Gina, Richard Stahl as Pathologist Dr. Samuelson, Susan Adams as Police lab tech Jean Parnell. Executive Producer: Jerry Thorpe. Producers: Robert Dozier and Alex Beaton.
From the beginning what made Harry O special was David Janssen and how the series used his talents to explore both the dark and comedic side of his character. Howard Rodman’s dark social noirish stories from the first half of Season One had been replaced with the more typical TV melodrama. Happily, the second season continued to take advantage of the special chemistry between Janssen and Anthony Zerbe and the relationship between Harry and Police Lieutenant Trench.
“Anatomy of a Frame.” (9/11/75): Trench is framed for the murder of one of his informants. One of the best episodes of the series, it showed how important great characters and chemistry between the actors is to any TV series.
The episode has a wonderful scene where Trench comes to Harry for help. We learn Trench is married with two young children, one boy and one girl. We enjoy watching Trench open up and reveal more about himself such as his shared interest in Harry’s unfinished boat “The Answer.” The boat was meant to be an allegory for Harry’s endless search for answers in life. The two men may have opposite views of how to work and live, but they shared the same purpose and dreams.
“One for the Road.” (9/18/75): A brilliant lawyer (Carol Rossen), who denies a drinking problem, hires Harry to find out if she was behind the wheel of a car in a hit and run accident. This episode as a weak melodrama saved by a decent mystery.
“Lester Two.” (9/25/75) features the return of Harry’s biggest fan Lester Hodges. An international jewel thief (Clifford David) hides some stolen diamonds in a bottle of cologne that the unknowing Sue brings back from Paris for Harry. It is Sue’s birthday and all she wants is some quiet time with Harry, but those plans change with the arrival of the thief who wants his diamonds (that are not in the bottle).
The series had a fondness for having odd scenes dropped in for comic relief. In this episode, we have a scene where Trench introduces Harry to Professor Kroner (Paul Harper) a mad scientist working for the police department creating gadgets James Bond’s Q would admire. The story is full of flaws from the actions of the thief to Lester at his most annoying, but Janssen as Harry makes the episode watchable.
“Shades.” (10/2/75): Harry is hired by a rich woman (Anjanette Comer) to clear her maid (Maidie Norman) of murder. Set against the backdrop of racial prejudices of the time, Harry unites with the local bookie, Cleon (Lou Gossett) who has his own reasons for finding the true killer.
A good episode made better by Lou Gossett and a strong mystery. One fun scene features Harry’s mechanic Spence escorting Harry through the “black” section of town.
Trivia: Harry was born in Philadephia. After the Korean War, he looked around and found he liked San Diego. And while Harry can run with no problems, the bullet is still in his back.
“Reflections.” (10/9/75): Harry’s ex-police partner in San Diego, now a Los Angeles PI is found dead. Harry discovers the man’s client is Harry’s ex-wife Elizabeth (Felicia Farr) who is being blackmailed.
A welcome look at Harry’s past, weakened by the lack of logic in the bad guy’s actions and Harry’s car. In the beginning the car was a symbol of Harry’s beach bum lifestyle, then it became a comedic device. But here the car breaks down and lets the killer escape. Why does Harry continue to use the car when his and others lives are on the line? And after this, how can we still find Harry’s choice in transportation funny?
“The Acolyte.” (10/16/75) Harry is hired to find a woman (Kristina Holland) who will soon inherit her family’s fortune. He finds her taken in by a religious cult. She is convinced the cult is protecting her from being charged with murder.
The episode had a nice subplot about old movie actors, but it was wasted in this predictable mystery with some of the worse acting by guest stars in the series.
“Mayday.” (10/23/75) A Senator (Geoffrey Lewis) is nearly killed when his private plane crashes. Harry gets involved because the plane’s pilot, who died in the crash, was a buddy from his time in Korea. When the dead pilot’s wife (Maggie Blye) returns from the funeral to find her home trashed, Harry suspects the crash may not have been an accident.
Highlights of the episode include the choice of murder weapon and the scenes between Harry and Trench. Harry’s love life has a setback as he spends time protecting his female client rather than with his girlfriend, DMV contact and neighbor Gina. Gina is less forgiving than Sue.
“Tender Killing Care.” (10/30/75): Spence asks Harry for help as his father (Jester Hairston) had escaped from a senior care center and broke into a small convenience store. Meanwhile, Sue asks Harry to find the missing father of three Korean children.
Cheap melodrama at its worst. You have a white doctor (Kenneth Mars) with a thick Southern accent mistreating seniors such as Spencer’s father (who is black). Meanwhile, the story of the missing daddy was a pointless waste of time. Then we have an important part of Harry’s character (he has no family except his friends) ignored for a condescending ending.
“APB Harry Orwell.” (11/6/75) Its Harry’s turn to be framed for murder. Trench is forced to balance his sense of duty as a policeman with his friendship to Harry. Harry escapes from jail, an innocent man on the run for a murder he did not commit. This time we know the one-armed man didn’t do it.
Harry is fun to watch again. This is the episode that won Anthony Zerbe the Emmy for Best Supporting Actor. The humor is typical for the series, such as the reason Harry gives Trench to why he is innocent, “As an ex-cop charged with murder is bad enough, but to leave clues as big as billboards is down right embarrassing.”
“Group Terror.” (11/13/75) Lady psychiatrist (Joanna Pettet) thinks one of her group therapy patients killed another member of the group. Trench is pleased to learn Harry has joined the group (he goes undercover). Harry’s love life gets some attention as he beds the client.
A weak attempt at a locked room murder, as the only way the killer could have gotten out is through a small window in a third floor apartment. As with too many of this season’s episodes, the story fails to take us anywhere unexpected. Fortunately, because of Harry and Trench (with Roberts), we enjoy the ride.
“Portrait of a Murder.” (11/20/75) Harry is hired by the parents (Lou Frizzell and Katherine Helmond) of a mentally challenged 19-year old boy (Adam Arkin) to find out where the boy had snuck out to the night before. Harry makes friends with the boy who becomes a suspect in the murders of three young women.
This episode handles the issue of the mentally challenged with sensitivity, though some of the language and attitudes are dated.
“Exercise in Fatality.” (12/4/75) Hotheaded cop (Ralph Meeker) hires Harry to find his runaway teenaged daughter (Nora Heflin) who is also a pregnant junkie. Before Harry finds her, his client is framed for the murder of the daughter’s boyfriend. The daughter believes her father did it but had seen the two real killers leave the scene of the crime. Harry tries to find the girl before the real killers can. Meanwhile, an ex-lover of Harry shows up and asks to stay while she hides from her mobster boyfriend.
Two separate plots for one episode was rarely used in the series and never worked. None of the characters were developed enough for us to care about them and the use of the pregnant junkies is too over the top melodramatic. But watch Janssen, he makes you care about what happens to Harry.
“The Madonna Legacy.” (12/11/75) An eight-year old murder is the key to the death of an alcoholic ex-cop turn PI, and friend of Harry. Harry is driven by guilt as he realizes he was the last of four people the PI tried to call before he was killed. The names of the other three are from the same family, each is in danger from someone who wants them dead. This episode was the best mystery of the season so far.
ABC made major changes in its midseason schedule with seven new shows, six cancelled and three moved. Harry O would remain behind the successful Streets of San Francisco on ABC’s Thursday night schedule. But CBS and NBC changed its Thursday schedules with CBS dropping CBS Thursday Night Movies for Hawaii Five-O followed by Barnaby Jones, and NBC moving Ellery Queen and dropping Medical Story for NBC Thursday Night Movie. The year 1976 would bring major changes to the TV network world, changes that would not be good for Harry O.
We were quite lucky. Storm Sandy gave us only a glancing blow, as it turned out, although that was bad enough. We had lots of rain and high gusty winds, 45mph or so, but our power stayed on — the lights flickered twice, and that was all. We were well prepared with food, bottled water, flashlights and a portable battery-operated radio, but we didn’t need them. I haven’t turned on the TV yet to see what damage was done along the shore here in CT and farther south along the East Coast, including New York City. Horrendous, I imagine. I know lots of people are in a lot more trouble than us.
There is one huge branch of a tree in our back yard that missed our deck by several feet, otherwise we might have lost it. The storm was essentially over by 10 pm, although it was supposed to last for several days, it was so large. I looked out it see if were raining, and I saw the moon shining brightly between the clouds. That was a great relief!
Today it is still windy with lots of gray clouds but the sun is also out, shining brightly for the first time in several days. I don’t know if you remember the date of our snowstorm last year, when we had no electricity for five days, but it was exactly a year ago. I really didn’t want to do that again!
JAMES ANDERSON – The Affair of the 39 Cufflinks. Poisoned Pen Press, hardcover, November 2003; trade paperback, February 2006.
Here’s something I’ve noticed before, but it seems to have registered only in the back of my head, never to have been mentioned before to anyone. By me, at least, until now. The titles of each of the first nine mysteries written by James Anderson start with the letter “A” — ignoring the occasional “The,” as in the first two books of this particular series:
The Affair of the Blood-Stained Egg-Cosy, McKay (hc) 1977, Avon (pb) 1978, Poisoned Pen Press (trade pb) 1998.
The Affair of the Mutilated Mink Coat, Avon (pb) 1981, Poisoned Press (trade pb) 1999 as The Affair of the Mutilated Mink.
Anderson’s other titles, in alphabetical order, are: The Abolition of Death, Additional Evidence, The Alpha List, Angel of Death, Appearance of Evil, Assassin, and Assault and Matrimony.
In the late 1980s Anderson also wrote the first three Jessica Fletcher paperbacks, tie-in’s with the Murder, She Wrote television series. (These do NOT start with the letter “A.”) And that seems to have been all, until just recently.
But other people than myself seem to have remembered the first two affairs taking place at Alderley with great fondness, and several years ago Poisoned Press reissued them as part of their Missing Mystery series. Then, according to the publisher, the manuscript for this, the third adventure of Detective-Chief Inspector Wilkins arrived, unexpectedly to everyone.
And so the Earl of Burford, George, his wife Lavinia, and their daughter Penelope are back again, which is good, no, terrific news. Nor I should fail to mention their stalwart butler Merryweather, who steadfastly aids the family throughout all three murder cases.
But as Wilkins implies on page 129, it was inevitable. “You know the old saying, ‘Never two without three’.” Lord Burford had tried earlier to resist. “After the last two house parties, we agreed no more.” But Great Aunt Florrie’s wishes are not be denied, and since she expressed the desire to be buried at the parish church, there is no getting around it, and after the funeral the mourners have to be invited to their country house, Alderley.
Not only that, the reading of the will is to take place there as well, necessitating overnight guests again, all distant relatives. In the securely locked house, someone, it turns out, has murderous intentions upon another.
This magnificent throwback to the 1930s, which of course is when it takes place, is filled with people who have both hidden secrets and secret desires, none of which they wish known; witty (and often cutting) dialogue; near farcical encounters in the night; and almost more clues than you can imagine.
Behind a rather sanguine facade, Wilkins is quite a detective, and at the end he patiently and impressively goes through each of the small hints and other pieces of evidence that brought him to his final conclusion — who did it and how, and how he found out.
It’s quite a challenge for an author to produce a period detective novel that’s also humorous and a fair play mystery as well, and two out of three is not bad. I was very suspicious of one of the characters, and rightly so, but after the explanations are over, it’s clear that not even the cleverest of armchair detectives could have worked the solution out on their own. Wilkins has the resources, the reader doesn’t, and the reader is not told of the crucial details until too late.
In summary, then, it’s an “almost, but not quite,” which is still better than 90% of the detective novels written today. And unless Mr. Anderson can be persuaded to write another, or he has one locked away in a trunk somewhere, I also have the feeling that this may be the end of the series. I hope I’m wrong.
— November 2003
[UPDATE] 10-26-12. Unfortunately I was not wrong. This was the last of three cases to be solved by Inspector Wilkins. The author, James Anderson, died in 2007.
Jeff Meyerson’s review of The Affair of the Blood-Stained Egg Cosy can be found here earlier on this blog.
Nowadays, weird movies are so numerous as to pass unnoticed; it is, in fact, common practice lately to layer a certain amount of weirdness deliberately onto quite ordinary films to increase their appeal to trendy movie-goers and boost the box office.
But in my youth, the truly weird movies were something subversive filmmakers got away with, mainly in the B-features when no one was looking. Hence, the old weird movies played at neighborhood grind-houses to audiences of uncomprehending kids and drunks, then on local TV stations at obscure hours of the morning, diced up with ads for used cars and the amazing veg-O-matic.
Hold that thought. I’ll get back to it.
The things I read, given world enough and time, begin to amaze me. A few weeks ago, f’rinstance, I found myself somewhere deep inside Thomas DeQuincey’s memoir (sensationally serialized in the London papers circa 1821-22) Confessions of an English Opium Eater.
This is not a book I’m going to recommend to lovers of Junkie or Musk, Hashish & Blood. The density of DeQuincey’s prose is such as will daunt most readers, and I don’t blame ’em a bit. Take one typical sentence —
“I do not often weep: for not only do my thoughts on subjects connected with the chief interests of man daily, nay hourly, descend a thousand fathoms “too deep for tears;” not only does the sternness of my habits of thought present an antagonism to the feelings which prompt tears – wanting of necessity to those who, being protected usually by their levity from any tendency to meditative sorrow, would by that same levity be made capable of resisting it on any casual access of such feelings:- but also I believe that all minds which have contemplated such objects as deeply as I have done, must, for their own protection from utter despondency, have early encouraged and cherished some tranquilizing belief as to the future balances and the hieroglyphic meanings of human sufferings.”
— and you’ll see it takes a Sherpa guide to get through some of these passes, and the reader with any sense at all for brevity and clarity may justifiably fling deQuincey’s book across the room.
Imagine my surprise, then, when I found myself not just enjoying this thing, but actually pursuing the tale (such as it is) eagerly to its end. For those who can fight through the dense prose, Confessions holds some powerful bits of sheer writing: harrowing descriptions of starving in London; stark descriptions of beggars and streetwalkers going desperately down winding, shadowy streets; gaudy evocations of wild opium dreams, and even the odd bit of humor jumping out from hiding, as his advice on taking Opium:
“…if you eat a good deal of it, you must do what is particularly disagreeable to any man of regular habits – die.”
Now to return to that thought you’ve been holding, DeQuincey’s title, somewhat abbreviated into Confessions of an Opium Eater was used for a film completely unrelated (or almost completely; the hero’s name is Gilbert DeQuincey) to the book.
Released by Allied Artists (formerly Monogram) in 1962, produced and directed by that wild card of the Cinema, Albert Zugsmith (look him up) this was a cult film before there were cult films, a movie that emerges as simply weird for its own sake, rather than aimed at any particular audience. Spawned by a filmmaker known equally for his work with geniuses and for his own trashy bad taste, Confessions will easily boggle the mind of anyone unprepared for its tawdry neo-surrealism.
Vincent Price stars as a black-clad and bemused soldier-of-fortune charged with ending the Oriental slave trade in San Francisco, circa 1920s — an action hero if you will, and if the mantle seems to rest a bit awkwardly on his shoulders, he still bears it manfully, jumping from rooftops, hatchet-dueling with Tong assassins, freeing fair young maidens and trading repartee with the Dragon Lady — in short, everything you expect from a two-fisted hero, but done with a sardonic lyricism never seen outside this cheap little movie, with lines like: “They say in every drunkard there’s a demon, in every poet a ghost. So here am I ghost and demon…”
There are other surprises along the way, including an oriental den of iniquity filled with several hundred doors, sliding panels and secret passages; a tiny slave girl locked in a cage who turns out to be a jaded and diminutive old woman; an extended slow-motion dope-dream fight sequence, and an ending that made me doubt my senses. In short, this is the goods: a genuine Old Weird Movie and like nothing else you’ll ever see.
DIRK GENTLY. BBC Four/ITV Studios in association with The Welded Tandem Picture Company for BBC Cymru Wales, 2010 and 20123. Created and executive produced by Howard Overman. Cast: Stephen Mangan as Dirk Gently, Darren Boyd as Richard MacDuff, Lisa Jackson as Janice, Jason Watkins as DI Gilks, and Helen Baxendale as Susan Harmison. For a more complete list of credits and an in depth look at the series visit the official BBC Four website.
Douglas Adams’ (Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy) private detective Dirk Gently first appeared in the comedy fantasy mystery novel Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency. His adventures continued in The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul (1988) and in the unfinished Salmon of Doubt (2002).
“But right now on BBC Four, its murder most random with Dirk Gently,” proclaimed the network’s announcer.
Dirk Gently believes in “the fundamental interconnectedness of all things,” the quantum mechanics of Physics applied to all life.
The series takes place in a modern day London. However, there are occasional moments when we realize the action is in an alternate universe, such as when Dirk fails to keep a computer program out of the hands of the Pentagon and America conquers Mexico.
The mysteries are played fair with clues, some obvious while others not. Everything is connected. When Dirk takes things from anyplace, know it will play a role in the case, unless it is cash from the dead person’s pocket – that will be for pizza.
The series was less interested in adapting Adams’ books than attempting to capture the spirit of his work and characters. Considering how impossible it would be to film the books, it was a wise choice, if not always successful.
Stephen Mangan may not fit the image of Dirk from the books but he plays the character convincingly. A self-centered con man with the social skills of Sherlock Holmes, Dirk may or may not believe in his detective skills but is satisfied that things always work out in the end. He drives a broken down car worthy of Harry Orwell’s admiration. He is a deadbeat whose primary joy in life is eating fatty foods.
Darren Boyd plays the spineless “Watson,” Richard MacDuff. But it is this character where the series goes most wrong. MacDuff appeared in the first book only. Lacking a narrator (though a narrator would have improved the TV series much as it did Pushing Daisies and Dragnet), the series needed a second character to help reveal exposition to the audience. The result was the series became less Dirk Gently and more a funny spoof of Holmes and Watson, as well as police procedurals.
Helen Baxendale was wasted as Susan Harmison, MacDuff’s girlfriend. The writers really didn’t know what to do with the character except use her as a story device to threaten MacDuff and Dirk’s partnership (while MacDuff considers himself a partner having invested all his money into the agency, Dirk considers him his assistant).
Lisa Jackson plays the one note character, Dirk’s secretary Janice. Janice sits in the outer office refusing to do any work, such as answer phones or show clients into Dirk’s office, until Dirk pays her wages. While not the most logical, the running gag is funny especially in the final episode.
Jason Watkins gets the required role of stupid cop DI Gilks, whose role gives Dirk someone to run from.
Pilot (12/16/2010). Written by Howard Overman. Based on Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency, by Douglas Adams. Directed by Damon Thomas. Guest Cast: Doreen Mantle, Anthony Howell, Billy Boyle, and Miles Richardson. *** Dirk is hired by an old woman to find her cat. This leads him to his friend from college Richard MacDuff, who is breaking into his girlfriend Susan’s home to delete an email he regretted sending.
They look for the cat in a warehouse full of SF looking machines that self-destructs apparently killing a millionaire scientist. The same millionaire who had been “in love” with MacDuff’s girlfriend Susan since their college days, and who Susan had been rejecting for years because of an incident in college. This and more is all connected and leads Dirk to the cat and the answer to two murders.
Typical Dirk moment: Among his expenses (payable in advance) Dirk charges the old lady for is the cost of a new refrigerator for his office (the one in his apartment had been padlocked by his landlord).
Episode One (3/5/12). Written by Howard Overman. Directed by Tom Shankland. Guest Cast: Cosima Shaw, Paul Ritter, Colin McFarlane and Kenneth Collard. *** MacDuff has joined the detective agency as Dirk’s partner/assistant. The agency has been hired by a paranoid millionaire computer genius convinced the American Pentagon is out to kill him.
They find him murdered, and uncover his plans to invade Switzerland. From the clues, Dirk realizes the man had invented a computer program that will prove whatever premise you want, to justify the unjustifiable, a computer program the Pentagon would kill to get.
Typical Dirk Gently moment: Dirk believes in Zen navigation. While many believe when you are lost you should consult a map, Zen navigation advises one to find someone who looks like they know where they are going and follow them. Dirk admits this method rarely gets him where he was going but it often gets him where he is supposed to be.
Episode Two (3/12/12) Written by Matt Jones. Directed by Tom Shankland. Guest Cast: Bill Paterson, Sylvestra Le Touzel, Lydia Wilson and Andrew Leung. *** Dirk’s mentor, Professor Jericho hires the agency to discover who was stealing funds and projects from the computer research department.
While Professor Ransome struggles on the verge of creating an AI named Max, Jericho is working on a robot version of his lost daughter Elaine. The robot is stolen and Jericho blames Dirk.
Typical Dirk moment: Dirk falls in love with the woman of his dreams, a woman who shares his obsession for fatty foods.
Episode Three (3/19/12). Written by Jamie Mathieson. Directed by Tom Shankland. Guest Cast: Lisa Dillon, Tony Pitts, Tina Maskell and Jason Stevens. *** Final episode of the series. Someone is killing Dirk’s former clients. He thinks someone is trying to frame him and runs from the police. The police are hoping he will be the next victim and regrettably feel obligated to offer him protection.
Dirk’s most basic random beliefs are tested when normal police procedural work finds the evidence to arrest the killer. MacDuff quits the agency when he is bothered by how flippant Dirk is over the mysteries when people are dying. But in the end the proper police work proves wrong and the inner connectedness of all things is the key to the solution.
Typical Dirk moment: One of Dirk’s first cases had him help convict a man for murder. He had been hired to find out who was stealing post-it notes from an office. Dirk framed the man he thought was guilty. However, when the police went to arrest the man for post-it note theft, they discovered the man’s brother murdered body. Later it was learned there was no stolen post-it notes, it had been an error in accounting.
Dirk Gently has its moments of delightful absurdist humor and the mysteries are fun, but, like in the books, the characters wear thin after awhile. The series is worth watching, but I would rather re-read The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul.
The series has been released on Pal format (non-USA) DVD. Currently (and unlikely for long) you can watch the episodes over at YouTube starting with the pilot here:
A BLUEPRINT FOR MURDER. 20th Century Fox, 1953. Joseph Cotten, Jean Peters, Gary Merrill, Catherine McLeod, Jack Kruschen, Barney Phillips, Freddy Ridgeway. Written and directed by Andrew L. Stone.
When his young niece dies a painful death of unknown causes, Whitney Cameron (Jospeh Cotten) is inclined to think it only a fluke of fate until the wife of the family attorney, a woman who also writes for the pulp magazines, does some investigating on her own and comes up with the possibility that the girl was poisoned. With strychnine.
If this is true, it’s next to impossible that it was an accident. And this being a movie, of course the answer is yes, the girl was poisoned, as an autopsy finally reveals. Could it be murder? Cam cannot believe it, but his suspicion (and that of the police) soon turns to the child’s stepmother (Jean Peters), who is as cool as they come and is calmly acquitted for lack of evidence.
Cam’s only concern now is the fate of the dead girl’s young brother. Did the stepmother do it? Who else could have done it? Who else had a motive? It’s a battle of wits between Joseph Cotten, as solid an actor as they come, and the cool and collected Jean Peters. I know, I know. I’m repeating myself, but this is the heart of the film.
I only wish is that the ending was able to live up to the rest of the story, and sad to say, it does not. This movie is sometimes categorized as “noir,” and a goodly part of it is. The middle portion, though, is straight out of Dragnet, which is fine, but the rest of the film wants to be a detective puzzle, and it simply isn’t there.
FIRST YOU READ, THEN YOU WRITE
by Francis M. Nevins
Since my last column I’ve seen Pièges, the French film from 1939 with so many strange links to Cornell Woolrich, and discovered even more of the same. I’ll limit myself here to three.
First of all, the movie is episodic in just the way so many of Woolrich’s best-known novels are episodic. It’s impossible that director Robert Siodmak and the screenwriters borrowed the structure from a Woolrich novel of that sort since all of those novels, beginning with The Bride Wore Black (1940), postdate Pièges.
Could the filmmakers have known of Woolrich’s first use of episodic structure in the long 1937 novelet “I’m Dangerous Tonight”? Barely possible but most unlikely since that tale remained buried in the pulps for decades and wasn’t collected until 1981.
Secondly, for just a minute or two, beginning with Marie Dea’s discovery of her vanished girlfriend’s bracelet in Maurice Chevalier’s desk, Pièges evokes the classic Woolrich situation where the protagonist is made to seesaw back and forth between believing the person he or she loves is innocent and accepting the evidence of the other’s guilt. The earliest Woolrich story in this vein is “The Night Reveals” (1936) so the filmmakers could have known of it.
Third, when Chevalier in Pièges is put on trial for murder, director Robert Siodmak covers the scene in just a few impressionistic fragments. Woolrich in Phantom Lady(1942) covers the trial of Scott Henderson in somewhat the same way: prosecutor’s closing argument, jury verdict, death sentence. He could have chosen this approach simply because he knew no law and didn’t care to learn any, or because it was suggested to him from seeing Pièges. We’ll never know.
Pièges was released in France late in 1939, apparently just before the outbreak of World War II. Was it ever released in the U.S.? Yes it was. In the chapter on Siodmak in his 1994 book Beyond Hollywood’s Grasp: American Filmmakers Abroad, 1914-1945, Harry Waldman tells us that its original English-language title was Personal Column and quotes from the review of it that appeared in the New York Times. Clearly Woolrich could have seen the picture.
But did he? Since there’s no reason to believe he knew French, it’s unlikely he would have gone unless the print shown in New York was subtitled. Was it? Waldman doesn’t tell us and so far I haven’t found the answer elsewhere.
Siodmak is included in Beyond Hollywood’s Grasp because Harry Waldman believed he was American by birth. In fact, as I mentioned last month, the director was of German Jewish descent and his birthplace was Dresden. But the myth that he was a son of the South, born in Memphis, has circulated for generations. I must say I’m grateful that Harry Waldman accepted that myth. His mistake made my research for this month’s column ridiculously easy.
In my high school and college days I read just about all of Erle Stanley Gardner’s Perry Mason novels — except those that hadn’t been published yet! — and some but not all of the novels about Bertha Cool and Donald Lam that he wrote as A.A. Fair.
Last month I pulled out one that as far as I could remember I hadn’t read before and gave it a try. The results are mixed. Bedrooms Have Windows (1949) opens in the lobby of a large hotel to which, as we learn later, Lam has trailed a suspected con man. Suddenly a petite and gorgeous blonde, clearly meant to evoke Veronica Lake, invites Donald to escort her into the hotel’s cocktail lounge.
There she spins a yarn that takes them both to a remote motel where they register as husband and wife. The woman walks out on Lam around the same time that a man in another unit of the motel apparently kills his mistress and then himself. All this in the first couple of chapters!
Eventually we learn that the counter-plotting stems from the blonde’s determination to break up the marriage between the man her sister loves and the tramp he actually married and a blackmail ring’s determination to cash in on the situation. But, if I may mangle metaphors, under scrutiny much of the plot labyrinth collapses like a house of cards, which is an all too common fault in Gardner.
The coincidences that keep things moving might have fazed a Harry Stephen Keeler, and the storyline suffers from a number of coffee-out-the-nose elements, for example that the police accept as an obvious suicide the death of that guy in the motel who, as Gardner omits to tell us till near the end of the book, was shot between the eyes.
I wouldn’t rank this as one of the finest in the Cool and Lam series, but it moves fast and has plenty of the adversarial dialogue that was a Gardner trademark and reflects its time well, with plenty of references to the skyrocketing inflation of the years right after World War II. I don’t recommend it strongly but I can’t call it worthless either. Shall we say one thumb down?
This month’s column is both shorter and later than usual. Why? Because I have been and still am putting in a slew of hours on the index toEllery Queen: The Art of Detection. Gad, what drudgery! The book will come out around February and a short excerpt will appear in the January 2013 EQMM. I hope those who read this column regularly will keep an eye out for both.
ROBERT LUDLUM – The Janson Directive. St. Martin’s, hardcover, October 2002; paperback, October 2003.
I don’t know about you, but the few of Robert Ludlum’s books I’ve read have always kept me reading. And with this particular one checking in at 680 pages in paperback, reading and reading and reading. I can’t do that in one night any longer, no matter what, and I don’t think anybody can.
Plot: An ex-Vietnamese War prisoner named Alex Janson, now a super-whiz corporate security consultant, is hired to free a wealthy philanthropist Peter Novak from a group of terrorists. Novak’s billions of dollars have been used many times over to promote democracy and peace around the world, and Janson is the only one who can save him.
Which, after several nerve-shattering incidents, including a free-fall parachute drop from four miles up, he does. This is on page 140. With 540 pages to go. What next? You should only ask.
Janson finds that he only a pawn, if you’ll forgive the cliché, in an even greater conspiracy, one designed to simply knock your socks off. Ludlum demonstrates such a worldliness in his characters, and leans so heavily on a world of esoteric knowledge that seemingly comes natural to him, that an everyday, ordinary sort of person such as you and I can only sit back in awe.
Well, I can vouch for me.
There are flaws, though. Janson is all but perfect, but his shield of invincibility only goes so far. It just isn’t large enough to include all of the people who give him aid and assistance, to put it mildly. They’re on their own. Given a chance to second guess themselves, they might well opt out of this book, given the opportunity. Nor is Ludlum averse to dragging out the clichés himself, as the occasion arises.
All in all, at $7.99 list price for the paperback, you certainly get your money’s worth. If in the end you start to reflect on the fact that the tale that’s told is no deeper than your standard super-hero comic book, that’s the only drawback that might trigger some regret, and it will quickly pass.
— October 2003
[UPDATE] 10-13-12. According to at least one online source, following the success of the Bourne movie, The Janson Directive is also being converted to the big screen. It ought to be a good one.
The Paul Janson series —
The Janson Directive (2002)
The Janson Command (2011) (with Paul Garrison)
The Janson Dilemma (2014)
BRUNO FISCHER – So Wicked My Love. Gold Medal #437, paperback original; 1st printing, October 1954. Gold Medal #753; 2nd printing, March 1958. A shorter version appeared in Manhunt, November 1953, under the title “Coney Island Incident.”
Sometimes it’s interesting (and often even fun) to put yourself in the shoes of one of the hapless protagonists in one of these early Gold Medal noir dramas of the early 50s. Take Ray Whitehead, for instance.
He’s a blue collar sort of guy, working as a truck driver for his father in a small Brooklyn-based business. His fiancée has just broken up with him, one of those “my mother always wanted me to marry a doctor” sort of deals, and he has her $1200 engagement ring in his pocket. He’s moping around on Coney Island when spots a redhead he knew in high school, Cherry Drew, a girl with not much of reputation then, but in a bathing suit, she certainly looks fine enough now.
One thing leads to another, and instead of throwing the ring down a convenient sewer, he’s given her the ring and he’s heading for her apartment with her. There waiting for her, though, is a guy named Shorty. It turns out that Cherry was part of gang of bank robbers, but she’s hijacked the loot with another guy who the rest of gang caught up with and who is now dead, and now they’ve caught up with her.
Several minutes later, Shorty is dead – Cherry’s doing – knifed twice in the back. Cherry has $80,000 in stolen cash. Question: what do you do? What can you do that doesn’t keep coming back to haunt you?
It’s a good beginning, but the book’s far too long for what was first a short story but which is stretched as far as it can go. There are a few twists of the plot that follow, but not even a good pulp writer like Bruno Fischer can keep coming up with as many as he needs. One good one, though, involves Ray’s former fiancée, who changes her mind about him, but who wonders why this other woman has the ring – or what looks exactly like the ring – she realizes she returned to him much too hastily .
But as sappy as Ray is for Cherry, he’s too honest a guy to be caught up in the latter’s charms all of the way the book, although she tries, believe me she does, and Ray really is as dopey as I said, and then some. In fits and stops. the book wanders around to a sort of happy ending, but only if you don’t stop and wonder about what comes next; how Ray manages to explain his way out of his last final encounter with Cherry.
WILLIAM LINDSAY GRESHAM – Nightmare Alley. Rinehart & Co., hardcover, 1946. Triangle Books, hardcover, Photoplay edition, 1948. Signet #738, paperback, 1949. Popular Library, paperback, 1976. Carroll & Graf, paperback, 1986. New York Review of Books, softcover, 2010. Included in Crime Novels: American Noir of the 1930s and 40s, Library of America, hardcover, 1997.
NIGHTMARE ALLEY. 20th Century Fox, 1947. Tyrone Power, Joan Blondell, Coleen Gray, Helen Walker, Taylor Holmes, Mike Mazurki, Ian Keith. Based on the novel by William Lindsay Graham. Director: Edmund Goulding.
The very words “nightmare alley” with their fusion of dreams and squalor, phantasm and filth, promise a lot when you put them on a book. Or a movie. Nowadays it’s possible to read a book and watch the film made from it in close proximity, and a while back I had a bit of ghoulish fun with the exercise.
Nightmare Alley was William Lindsay Gresham’s first novel, and though there’s a bit of fat in the book, it’s still a powerful and often unsettling tale of Stan Carlisle, a smooth carnival huckster who promotes himself to spiritualist and then religious con-man, rising in society only to find that the seeds of his own undoing were always within him and “what we saw and he didn’t” have grown to hideous (nightmarish?) proportions.
This was the work that brought the term geek to the public, and Gresham’s description of just what a geek was in those days, and how one was made, is still chilling today. It ain’t for every taste, but fans of Jim Thompson and David Goodis will find it a rare and — in its own way — unforgettable treat.
(PARENTHETICAL NOTE: William Lindsay Gresham (1909-1962) was, from all accounts, an alcoholic who abused his wife and children and ended up a suicide. His treatment of his wife and kids was bad enough that his spouse took the children and fled to England — where she met, fell in love with, and married C. S. Lewis. Their story can be seen in the film Shadowlands.)
The movie Nightmare Alley that came out in 1947 is something of a surprise from a major studio like Fox, a “class” director like Edmund (Grand Hotel) Goulding, and producer George Jessell (!) but it’s slick, savage, seedy and immensely satisfying.
Tyrone Power — a smooth leading man with an odd flair for self-destructive roles — puts bitter bite into his performance as Carlisle, ably supported by a spirited cast of capable players, including Joan Blondell, Ian Keith, Mike Mazurki, and chilling Helen Walker as a lethal psychologist; the scene where she destroys Power’s psyche is worthy of Lady MacBeth.
Lee Garmes’ evocative, sleazy-splendid photography helps out too, but best of all is Jules Furthman’s cunning screenplay. Undulating past the censors, he takes the masochism explicit in the book and makes it implicit in the character, and even hints at a darker ending than the one we see on screen.
Furthman always was a good hand at adapting the works of others (To Have and Have Not, The Big Sleep, etc.) with a slick trick of slicing just enough out of a book to get past the censors, while still preserving the tone of the piece, and his work here is simply splendid.