NOOSE. Pathé Pictures International, UK, 1948. Monogram Pictures, US, 1950, as The Silk Noose. Carole Landis, Joseph Calleia, Derek Farr, Stanley Holloway and Nigel Patrick. Screenplay: Richard Llewellyn. Director: Edmond T. Greville.
An enjoyably lop-sided thing in which disparate elements (nasty gangsters, snappy dialogue, dead women, comedy, torture, slapstick, guilt, laughter) work against each other throughout to produce a film that is actually quite fun to watch.
Carole Landis, in her penultimate film, stars as a plucky gal reporter of the Lois Lane school, working for the fashion department of a great metropolitan (London) newspaper, who tumbles onto the startling fact that there is Vice going on in town and someone’s making money off it.
Dampened by her editor, deprecated by her fiancé and daunted by gangland, our heroine promptly smashes the rackets in about an hour and a half, with the assistance of her ex-commando boyfriend (Derek Farr) a bunch of his mates down at the boxing gymnasium, and the bemused gaze of Stanley Holloway as a crusty cop.
I know it all sounds like pretty standard stuff but Noose is a film that has to be seen to be appreciated. Richard Llewellyn’s (yes, that Richard Llewellyn’s) dialogue carries a pleasant bite, and director Greville moves the action along at a nice clip, pausing long enough to savor a bite of suspenseful unpleasantness or evoke a slice of character, then moving right along.
He does particularly well by Joseph Calleia as a gangland mastermind complete with a nasty personal assassin known as “the Barber” who scuttles about like some sort of loathsome land-bound crab with a perpetual and unsettling leer. And the fact that this nasty toad is played by the comedic Shakespearean trouper Hay Petrie only adds to the cachet.
You may gather from the above that Noose is a grim exercise in Gangland procedure, and you’d be quite right; there are some bits of suspense and sadism that match anything you’re likely to see in American film noir. Imagine my surprise then when the story wraps up in a burst of farcical slapstick so silly one looks around for the Three Stooges to show up. It doesn’t spoil the film by any means, but it does edge it closer to Monty Python than Mickey Spillane.
A few more points that deserve to be outed:
One seldom praises the editing in a film because when it’s really good, editing goes unnoticed. But here it calls attention to itself with brassy charm as editor David Newhouse (who only did one other film) keeps changing scene by cutting from one moving figure to another moving in the same direction, or from one image to its mirror-twin, polishing the flashy narrative even brighter. One notices the editing in Noose and appreciates it.
Then there’s Nigel Patrick as Calleia’s second-in-command, delivering a perfect performance in such a well-written part that at times it quite overbalances the whole film, and no one cares. Words can’t do it justice; you just have to see Patrick strutting about like a wind-up toy barking out staccato tongue-twisters to fall in love with him.
And finally mention must be made of an actress in another throw-away part, Carol van Derman as a momentary object of Calliea’s attentions. She spends several minutes toward the end of this film stepping about in her step-ins, and she’s rather good at it.
TED BELL – Phantom. William Morrow, hardcover, March 2012. Harper, paperback, August 2012.
Phantom is the seventh novel in Ted Bell’s popular series about Lord Alex Hawke, latter day privateer, secret agent, dashing lover, fabulously wealthy aristocrat, and mover and shaker at ease in the corridors of power with presidents and kings — or at least Queen Elizabeth.
Doc Savage at least had trouble talking to women, Tarzan was uncomfortable in civilization, and James Bond drank and smoked too much, but Hawke is not only wealthy and handsome, but has his own navy and special forces. His yacht the Blackhawke, named after his privateer ancestor, is armed like a destroyer and does everything but space flight. Hawke is easily the best equipped hero since the days of Arsene Lupin’s yacht and private submarine.
Hawke doesn’t do it all alone, he has a team, and what a team. We begin with Pelham, his faithful servant and friend (he raised Hawke when Hawke’s parents were killed by pirates — see Hawke), who is basically Bruce Wayne’s Alfred. After Pelham comes his oldest friend Ambrose Congrieve, formerly of the Yard, and closer to John Dickson Carr’s Dr. Fell than any real Scotland Yard sleuth, a Sherlockian-quoting unlikely copper so far off of any realistic context as to be virtually alien.
Next is Stokely ‘Stoke’ Jones Jr. ex US SEAL, and the most jive talking unlikely black man since George Baxt’s Pharaoh Love. The only reason I can see no one has been offended by this character is that they just haven’t read them. The cast is rounded out with Harry Brock, ex CIA; Nell Spooner, ex Special Branch and nanny to Hawke’s son by Russian Anastasia (her father tried to become the next Tsar — in Tsar — and was foiled by Hawke), Nell would willingly give aid and comfort to Hawke in a Biblical manner if he ever noticed; the head of MI6 Sir David Truelove; at least one American ambassador formerly head of the CIA; and, a Dubya like American president who trusts Hawke implicitly.
In addition this all takes place against a background of a forelock-tugging Never-never-land of an England that didn’t really exist when P.G. Wodehouse was writing about it. (Hawke is a huge Wodehouse fan.) My willing suspension of disbelief gets sprained just thinking about it. If you want to see the society Bell is attempting to write about handled with artistry, savagery, and insight try Simon Raven or Anthony Powell. This wouldn’t pass for reality in a Monty Python sketch.
In Phantom there is about half a book of leftover soap opera elements from Tsar to deal with including Hawke discovering Anastasia is still alive, traveling to Russia to save her, losing her again but discovering his son, Alexi, and his friends Stoke and Brock taking on a group of survivors of the royalist Russian plot out to kill Hawke and his son — their I Spy like banter easily the most annoying and flat in the genre. Sheldon Leonard has a lot to answer for.
You can understand why the plot of Phantom doesn’t show so much as a hint of kicking in until page 118. (Even what went before the openings of movie serials didn’t last ten of the twenty minute chapter.)
You see, Stoke is getting married to Fancha, a pop singing star, in his old home church in Louisiana by his old pastor (think Rex Ingram’s de Lawd from Green Pastures with a touch of Juano Hernandez) with Hawke his best man. After far too much of the wedding in the most unlikely parish in the state’s history, the happy couple take a cruise, and their ship is promptly sunk by a Russian submarine. (Someone in the Russian navy must have been on one of those cruises from hell we see on the news.)
Not that the Russians intended to sink the cruise ship, they couldn’t help it. Their ship itself sank the floating tourist trap.
Naturally our government doesn’t really buy that until one of our F-15‘s almost shoots down Air Force One.
Who you gonna call?
You got it.
Cyber-warfare on an unimagined scale has broken out, and behind it lies a secret that will shake the world to its core. If you haven’t figured out that secret by now you haven’t seen a science fiction movie since the 1950‘s.
Perseus, the worlds most powerful computer, has reached Singularity. True AI, and like all super computers that reach consciousness, it wants to rid the planet of that nasty virus called mankind and start over. Somewhere Fred Brown, who supposedly wrote the first such story, is tossing in his grave. (Scientist: “Is there a God?” — Computer: “There is now.”)
You just know Hawke will have the usual good guy/bad guy tete-a-tete with Perseus before pulling the plug. Not bad, considering he was in a full-blown drunken state of abject depression in chapter one.
I can’t tell if Bell is having us on or is completely serious, but I think he may actually be serious and think there once was an England like this. Hawke is a fantasy figure, but at some point you have to curb your imagination a little. I should have known I was in trouble in the first book (Hawke) when Hawke sashayed into a tough pub in white tie and top hat a la Simon Templar and chose to incite a brawl for fun.
Ian Fleming wrote the James Bond novels in a whiskey-soaked Fleet Street drawl, layering a coating of fantasy over thinly disguised events and people from the war giving a twist a la the Fleming effect and an ear for the poetry of violence as well as an eye for memorable women; Trevanian was a savage social and political critic with a sharp eye and tongue and an ironic tone that dripped venom and wit in equal doses; Bell, despite impeccable credentials, writes Boy’s Own Paper tales on the level of Waldo the Wonderman and Nelson Lee. He is more Sax Rohmer than Fleming or Trevanian, and more Jack Armstrong than Rohmer.
He does remind me of Sapper a bit. He never met a cliche he won’t embrace wholeheartedly.
All this to one side, the Hawke books are great fun if you lower expectations and sit back for the ride. There is no substance to them, their relationship to the real world is roughly comparable to the relationship between Diet Coke and the real thing, merely disposable time wasters on the literary scale of a big summer movie blockbuster full of noise and movement, but they are wide screen 3D Technicolor diversions.
That said, popcorn, cotton candy, hot dogs, corny dogs, and burgers may not be memorable but they will fill your tummy even if they are instantly forgotten. Don’t mistake these for anything more than they are and you will get your money’s worth.
But twenty or thirty years down the line when they are still reading Ian Fleming and even Doc Savage, Bell and Hawke won’t even be a footnote — they are strictly literature as junk food. Here today, at the bottom of the trash can tomorrow.
J. MICHAEL STRACZYNSKI – The Twilight Zone, Volume 1 #1: The Way Out. Dynamite Entertainment, comic book, 2014. Illustrated by Guiu Vilanova. Colored by Vinicius Andrade. Lettered by Rob Steen. Main cover by Francesco Franvavilla.
Carol Kramer Serling, widow of the late Rod Serling, remarked in a 1987 interview that, for the legendary creator of The Twilight Zone, “the ultimate obscenity is not caring, not doing something about what you feel, not feeling! Just drawing back and drawing in; becoming narcissistic.” In many ways, that very spirit of refusing to turn away from perceived social injustice animates the narrative in the brilliantly executed first issue of J. Michael Stracyznski’s The Twilight Zone comic book series (2014).
The tall, muscular, and blonde-haired Trevor Richman wears a suit and tie, works in New York finance, and cheats on his blonde-haired girlfriend, Natalie Kyle, with the dark-haired Sandra. He is about to be indicted for white-collar criminal offenses. Knowing it’s only amount of time before the FBI catches up with him, Richman seeks the services of the mysterious, gray-bearded Martin Wylde, whose firm developed a nanotechnology pill which, if ingested, transforms so completely that they assume complete new identities, complete with new blood type, eye color, and fingerprints.
Richman takes the pills and transforms into a new man — literally. Thomas Riley (same initials!) has dark hair — similar to Sandra and unlike Natalie. When Richman/Riley goes in for a cleaning appointment, the dentist tells him that his jaw is changing on its own and that he basically appears to have a new dental profile.
Riley, unlike his former self as Richman, does not wear a tie; instead, he wears jeans. Although, suffice it to say, he didn’t need to take a pill to do either of those things. Riley, it would seem, still has Richman’s personality and memories, leading the reader to believe that the change, dramatic as it was, was merely physical.
Even a casual reader would notice the strong political subtext in “The Way Out.” Cheating Wall Street bankers, like Richman, are villainous. Wylde’s clients, we learn, are tyrants and dictators, war criminals, torturers, and … “a growing number of people from the financial services industry.”
And one can almost hear echoes of Serling, known for introducing the theme of racial equality into his work, in Richman/Riley’s response to an African-American, a patron of a coffee shop, who wants white collar criminals in jail: “The legal system doesn’t work the same way for people at the top as it does for — well, for everyone else, for the people with power, for the people who matter…there’s always a way out.”
Vilanova and Andrade’s visual rendering of the patron’s face, ostensibly reacting to Richman/Riley’s over-the-top statement, is stunning. Still, one wonders whether the characters deliberately refer to the “FEC” and the “Federal Exchange Commission” or whether this was an oversight on the part of the author who should have written “SEC” and “Securities and Exchange Commission” instead. (The FEC is the Federal Election Commission, not really relevant to this story.)
Unlike far too many comic books appearing on the shelves these days, the first issue of The Twilight Zone is well written, deals with serious subject matter, and contains artwork and coloring that works exceptionally well with the story. There were a couple instances, however, where I had to double check whether I understood correctly which character was which. But those moments were few and far between.
In conclusion, Stracyznski, who wrote for the 1985 television reboot of The Twilight Zone has written the type of story one could easily imagine appearing the television show bearing its name. A tale, it should be noted, which with a dramatic cliffhanger — one I certainly didn’t see coming. I’m planning on going to the comic book store later this week and purchasing the next few issues in the series. I want to know how it all turns out.
FOUR JUST MEN. Syndicated, 1959-60. Sapphine Films / ITC Release. “Inspired by ‘The Four Just Men’ of Edgar Wallace.” Starred Richard Conte as Jeff Ryder, Dan Dailey as Tim Collier, Vittoria de Sica as Ricco Poccari, and Jack Hawkins as Ben Manfred. Co-starred Honor Blackman, Lisa Gastoni, Andrew Keir, and June Thorburn. Executive Producer: Hannah Fisher.
When their Commanding Officer from their days in the WWII invasion of Italy dies, four men gather together to honor him. They discover he had left them a large amount of money and a request they use it to fight injustice. They agree, but unlike the book, go their separate ways to star in each own adventure. At one point during every episode the featured star would contact one of the other four, usually on the phone and for just one scene.
Conte was lawyer Jeff Ryder who operated out of New York, and was aided by his law student assistant Vicky, played by June Thorburn.
“Crack Up.” Episode 22. Screenplay: Louis Marks, from a story idea by Lee Lolb. Directed by Anthony Bushell, Produced by Jud Kinberg. Guest Cast: Robert Shaw, Charles Irwin and Delena Kidd. The crossover scene featured Jack Hawkins as Ben Manfred.
The discovery of a downed plane tied to a five year old mystery of missing gold leads the wife of the still missing pilot to hire the “four just men” to help her get to the plane and prove her husband had not stole the gold. The mystery was better than average but it was hard to care what happens to any of the one dimensional characters.
Dailey was Tim Collier, an American reporter based in Paris. Honor Blackman played his girlfriend and secretary Nicole who among the four just men assistants played the largest role.
“Marie.” Episode 16. Screenplay by Gene Levitt and Louis Marks. Directed by Don Chaffey Produced by Jud Kinberg Guest Cast: Perlita Neilson, Alec Mango and Peggy Ann Clifford. The crossover scene was with Jack Hawkins as Ben Manfred.
One of the better episodes, a thriller set against the backdrop of the Algerian War (1954-1962) and its effects on those in France. Collier and Nicole try to save the life of a suicidal young woman.
VITTORIA DE SICA
De Sica was Ricco Poccari, owner of the Hotel Poccari in Rome. Assisting him was his secretary Giulia played by Lisa Gastoni.
“Maya.” Episode 12. Written and Directed by William Fairchild. Produced by Sidney Cole. Guest Cast: Mai Zetterling, Peter Illing and Raymond Young. The crossover scene featured Richard Conte as Jeff Ryder delivering a vital plot point.
Ah, the good old days of royalty. A spoiled Princess is in danger from those who are attempting a coup of an uranium rich country ruled by her wise and popular brother.
Hawkins played Ben Manfred, Member of Parliament and based in London. Andrew Keir was Jock, Manfred’s manservant and friend.
“Money to Burn.” Episode 21. Screenplay by Jan Read. Directed by Basil Dearden. Produced by Sidney Cole. Guest Cast: Ian Hunter, Charles Gray and Wolf Press. The crossover scene featured Richard Conte as Jeff Ryder.
A General plans to stage a coup in a small democratic country. He tricks a British company that has been hired to print the country’s currency to help financially ruin the young Republic.
The script tries hard to avoid any action or show any interest in plausibility as Manfred attempts to get the money back.
The series was popular in England where it was number two in the ratings (Wagon Train was first) (Broadcasting, December 7, 1959). By August 1960 Four Just Men was in 159 markets (Broadcasting August 15.1960). According to Broadcasting (April 11, 1960), Four Just Men had sold in 16 other countries including Canada, Mexico and Czechoslovakia. ITV Board Chairman Michael Nidorf told Broadcasting (March 7, 1060) that the series had grossed nearly two million dollars.
Much like the book, today the series is hopelessly outdated. They don’t make them like this any more for a reason. The premise is pure 1950s with older white men having all the answers including a view of morality that would not be accepted in today’s society. In an excellent review by “tanner” at blog double o section, he more fully discusses the flaws of the series.
Four Just Men was an average 1950s era thriller TV series. Its production values were above average for the day but weak even compared to the 60s era shows that followed. Some of the scenes were shot on location but the series rarely took advantage of the scenery in places such as New York, Paris and Rome. The scripts and plots were limited by the half-hour format and the humorless TV dramatic style popular at the time but soon to change with the success of future series such as Peter Gunn, The Saint and The Avengers. The acting with few exceptions was a disappointment.
The result was a usually passable thirty minutes of television worth sampling but not worth searching for the now out of print British DVD.
For a review of the book Four Just Men you will find one by David L. Vineyard here on this blog.
GEORGES SIMENON – Pietr the Latvian. Penguin Books, softcover, 2013. Translated from the French by David Bellos. First US edition: Covici Friede, hardcover, 1931. First UK edition: Hurst, hardcover, 1933. Also published as Maigret and the Enigmatic Lett. Penguin, US/UK, paperback, 1963. First published serially in French as Pietr-le-Letton in the weekly Ric & Rac, No. 71-83, 19 July to 11 October 1930.
Class-conscious interwar Paris, along with gritty Depression-era New York City and 1940s-era noir Los Angeles, are ideal urban settings for mystery writers seeking to place their protagonist in the heart of societies experiencing disruptive cultural and social changes.
Georges Simenon’s (1903-1989) Pietr the Latvian, originally published in 1930, is a police procedural set primarily in interwar Paris. In this short novel, Simenon introduces the character of Inspector Maigret, one of the twentieth-century’s best-known fictional policemen. After this first Maigret novel, Simenon would go on to feature the pipe-smoking detective in in 74 additional novels and 28 short stories. (There were also numerous television adaptations.)
Is there a robust market for Maigret in the English-speaking world? Hard to say, but Penguin Books surely must have sensed a profitable business opportunity when it decided that Penguin Classics, beginning in 2013, would publish English translations of all the Inspector Maigret novels.
The first of the Maigret novels, Pietr the Latvian, both captivates and disappoints. The plot follows the Parisian inspector’s relentless pursuit of the eponymous international criminal. When Maigret discovers a man fitting Pietr’s description dead in a train car, the mystery only deepens. There appear to be two Pietrs, one dead and one still very much alive, residing in a Parisian hotel. Maigret’s chase takes him to unique locales within both Paris and Normandy. Along the way, he encounters a wide array of unique characters, including an American millionaire and his wife, a dancer, a Jewish hotelier, and a man who appears to be Pietr.
Simenon’s prose succeeds at temporarily transporting the reader to a wet, windswept land where things aren’t always what they seem. Two of the novel’s memorable settings are the posh Majestic, a hotel on the Champs-Élysées and the Marais, the traditional Jewish quarter. The contrast between these two worlds within the larger city of Paris, as described by Simenon, is palpable.
A notable subtext is the author’s critical analysis of the ethnic schisms and class divisions of interwar Paris. For instance, Simenon describes Inspector Maigret as both having a proletarian frame and being out of place at an elite Parisian hotel:
Inevitably Maigret was a hostile presence in the Majestic. He constituted a kind of foreign body that the hotel’s atmosphere could not assimilate. (p. 10)
And when Inspector Maigret attends the opening night of a play at the Gymnase Theatre to trail a wealthy suspect, “he stuck out as the only person not wearing formal attire” (p. 56). Simenon’s descriptions, both explicit and implicit, of the mores of the trans-Atlantic upper crust also merit the reader’s attention.
Simenon’s treatment of the ethnic divide in Paris, namely between native Frenchmen and Eastern European immigrants, is also worth analyzing. The story hinges, in part, on how one Jewish female character from the Marais interacts with persons staying at the Majestic.
Through Simenon’s writing, one catches a glimpse of how many Western Europeans at the time viewed emigrants from Russia, Poland, and the Baltics as both foreign and mysterious. A contemporary reader may bristle upon reading Chapter 14’s opening line, one dealing with the aforementioned Jewish character’s apartment:
Every race has its own smell, and other races hate it. (p.115)
That said, Simenon’s treatment of Jewish and Eastern European characters is comparably innocuous when compared with much that was written in that era.
It’s too bad, then, that this good detective story with an atmospheric setting suffers from uneven writing, at least in this translation. There are far too many instances within the text where the writing can only be best described as clunky. The translation also seems to be too literal. (I say this as someone who has translated French academic texts.)
Take, for instance, this sentence from Chapter 12:
He filled his pipe and suddenly realized with another smile that was somewhat more ironical than the first that for the last several hours he’d forgotten to have a smoke. (p. 103)
Or this sentence from Chapter 10:
He looked like a tourist in a historic church trying to work out without the help of a guide what there was to inspect. (p.85)
Fortunately, not all of the work reads like this. It would be preferable to read sentences that not only captured Simenon’s original intent, but also flowed well in contemporary English. Simenon’s writing, or at least how it’s rendered here, is nowhere near as fluid as that of Arthur Conan Doyle or Raymond Chandler.
With all that in mind, it’s worth mentioning that this will not be the only Inspector Maigret novel I shall read. I look forward to reading other translators’ rendering of Simenon’s work and to follow the life and times of one of the twentieth-century’s most beloved fictional detectives.
FRANCIS D. GRIERSON – The Smiling Death. Edward J. Clode, US, hardcover, 1927. First published in the UK: Geoffrey Bles, hardcover, 1927.
Several times in this novel Inspector Sims and undercover criminologist Professor Wells note that coincidence is not remarkable. I concur. Thus I am not going to express astonishment because two amateur investigators discover a corpse near the police station Inspector Sims and Professor Wells happen to be visiting.
Or because one of the amateurs falls in love at first sight with a passing horror-stricken face, a face that turns out to belong to the villain’s ward. Or because the other amateur falls in love at first sight with a girl in the street — in, mind you, not of; please pay attention, even if it’s not rewarding — whose father was ruined by the villain and whose restaurant is located in the house previously occupied by the recently discovered dead man.
Or because one of the villain’s henchmen had his life saved during World War I by one of the amateurs. Or because — I could go on, but I guess you’re convinced by now of my tolerance.
Since this is a thriller and the author early on discloses the villain’s identity, I take leave to quote:
One may suspect a clergyman of embezzlement, an actuary of cheating at cards, a retired admiral of stealing his neighbour’s bulbs in the dead of night — but about the trade of a bookseller there is something of the venerable dignity of the first editions he handles, a certain abstraction from the affairs of a hurried world, an innocence in all matters not connected with vellum, calf, fair paper and the variations of type. In all his experience, Sims reflected sardonically, he had never arrested a bookseller.
This bookseller villain — did some dastard mutter that that’s an oxymoron? — is another Moriarty, without the latter’s vast legions but with the same problem of ineptness and ingratitude on the part of his few minions.
For those of you who, like me, always wondered what booksellers buy one half so precious as the stuff they sell, it has been revealed here in a novel slightly above Edgar Wallace’s average, with more and better humor than Wallace usually provided.
— From The MYSTERY FANcier, Vol. 13, No. 2, Spring 1991.
Editorial Comment: I’d have thought that this to be a detective novel so obscure that not a single trace of it would exist, even on the all-knowing Internet. I’d have thought wrong. Check out John Norris’s review of this very same title over on his blog, along with a list of all of the Inspector Sims & Professor Wells novels. (And, yes, John’s blog is the source of the cover image you see here as well.)
EVERYBODY WINS. Orion, 1990. Nick Nolte, Debra Winger, Will Patton, Judith Ivey, Jack Warden. Screenplay: Arthur Miller, based on his play of the same title. Director: Karel Reisz.
Overall, I’d say I did — win, that is — even considering how unflinchingly flat the ending of this PI drama taking place in good old Connecticut is, but on the other hand, Leonard Maltin in his book on the movies calls this film a BOMB, and if so, either he or I are out of kilter, and I don’t think it’s me. [FOOTNOTE 1.]
PI Tom O’Toole (an appropriately scruffy but sometimes rather vacuous-looking Nick Nolte) is called in on the case by a woman named Angela. She’s a friend of the defendant, the nephew of the dead man, a well-known doctor who was brutally murdered in his home several months before. Already convicted and in jail, the nephew is a weakling who will probably not survive incarceration much longer.
O’Toole is reluctant, but Angela’s charms prove too comely to overcome. Debra Winger (as Angela) is appropriately ditsy ad alluring all at once, and only gradually does she reveal that she knows more and more about the case — each time O’Toole is on the verge of withdrawing, she comes up with another shred of the story that keeps his interest, um, aroused.
Angela is also the town whore, as O’Toole discovers too late, but he is too much in fascination with her to quit on the case, even if he wanted to. And the longer the case lingers on, the higher the corruption in the town (the cop cars say Highbury) seems to go. The crazed owner of a village garage slash motorcycle shop — he wants to start his own church, and he already as the beginnings of his own gang of disciples — seems to have confessed to the crime at one time, but it was still the doctor’s nephew who was railroaded into prison.
All is not what it seems, or so it seems, and Twin Peaks has a lot to answer for. With all he quirky behavior involved, my greatest fear was that there would be no ending at all, but as I implied earlier, here I was wrong. The ending is one in which, as Angela says, “everybody wins,” and everyone and everything is satisfied, except justice (and just perhaps) Tom O’Toole. Just like real life.
Whatever lack the story may have in a final punch, however, is at least partially made up for by the photography. New England never looked lovelier. [FOOTNOTE 2.]
FOOTNOTE 1. The point is this. How could anybody lump this film into the same category as Plan 9 from Outer Space and The Man Who Turned to Stone? I mean, give me a break.
FOOTNOTE 2. Or so I thought until I saw the closing credits. Apparently the movie was filmed, at least in part, in Wilmington, North Carolina. All is not what it seems, all right.
— Reprinted from Mystery*File 37, no date given, slightly revised.
[UPDATE] 03-26-14. IMDb now tells me that some of this movie was filmed in Connecticut — Norwich, to be precise, a fact I hadn’t realized when I wrote this review.
DONOVAN. Granada TV, UK, 2004. 2 x 90 minute episodes. Samantha Bond, Ryan Cartwright, Tom Conti, Kara Wilson, Rhea Bailey, Jonathan Beswick, Anthony Edridge, Martin Scoles, David Fleeshman.
Donovan was a one-off story with Tom Conti as the titular forensic scientist. Ten years ago he had a breakdown and resigned after a convicted murderer was acquitted on appeal after Donovan had been fond to have suppressed some evidence.
Now a body is found with an identical method to the original crime. Donovan is pursuing a successful career writing about crimes he has investigated, but because of this connection is called in to do some forensics alongside the new scientist.
(I would have thought that because of this connection he would have been the last person called in to do the work — but this is typical of the way that the obvious is simply glossed over to allow the situation to develop.)
Some DNA is found at the scene and it turns out to be Donvan’s: he claims it is planted, but at first it is thought that he has carelessly left it while investigating.
Later, when the victim turns out to be one of his wife’s lovers, it is used as evidence of Donvan’s guilt. Worse, he is suffering memory losses, especially of items that are important to the plot. Could he have committed the murder and forgotten about it?
This had a strong cast, though Conti chose to play his part without any discernible emotions, and in truth I quite enjoyed it, but it just wasn’t plausible. It was done in all seriousness and presumably we were meant to take it seriously.
Editorial Comment: This two-parter story has been packaged with three additional episodes from 2005 and is available on DVD in the US as DNA. See the image above.
EMMA LATHEN – Murder to Go. Simon & Schuster, hardcover, 1969. Pocket, paperback, September 1971 [the copy I read]. Several later printings.
Counting A Shark out of Water, which appeared in 1997 and was the final one in the series, there were 24 “Emma Lathen” books in all — all of them featuring John Putnam Thatcher, senior vice-president of the Sloan Guaranty Trust, “the third largest bank in the world.”
Whether he was ever promoted, I do not know. While I’ve read several of the books in the series over the years, I’d have to say it’s been twenty since last I did, and perhaps even thirty.
And when I was a young man, what did I know of banking and investments, takeovers and mergers – the stuff, in other words, of the world of finance? Darned near nothing, and that’s reason I back then never did appreciated Thatcher’s adventures in mystery investigation anywhere nearly as well as I should have, I am sure.
Before I get on any further with this review, let me add right here the fact that Emma Lathen was the byline of two ladies, Mary Jane Latsis and Martha Hennisart. You may be able to discern where the joint pseudonym came from, but from whence their alternative one, R. B. Dominic? (I seem to remember reading about it, and I think it was Jon Breen who uncovered this second identity of theirs, so maybe it was written up somewhere or another.)
Queries: Is John Putnam Thatcher the first investment banker to be a repeating character in a series of detective stories? Query: Is Murder to Go the first instance of murder (fictional) related to a fast food franchise? (In this case, the Chicken Tonight Corporation.) Is Murder to Go the first fictional mystery involving mass poisoning via a commercial product? (The notorious Tylenol tampering case did not occur until 1982, so in this regard, it seems, the ladies Lathen were well ahead of any real-life case I can think of.)
It is thus that the first death was accidental. The second, however, is decidedly not, and Thatcher, whose bank has a substantial stake in Chicken Tonight, is squarely in the middle of it.
Lathen, which is how I will refer to both authors (and as female and in the singular) has a good eye and ear for how people really behave, both in the high echelons of the business world, and the lower – the franchisees who (of course) end up taking the heat – and the loss of business – the most. She also has a subtle “looking down the nose” and (through Thatcher) a non-approving way of looking at many situations, often to me in surprisingly humorous fashion. (Whoever thinks of bankers as stand-up comedians?)
Here’s a lengthy quote from page 27:
“This is a honeyfall for printers,” he [Charlie Trinkam, reporting to Thatcher] announced, perching of a corner of the desk. “I understand every restaurant in town has put out a rush order for new menus. Crossing things out isn’t good enough. They don’t want the word chicken mentioned on the premises.”
“You can’t blame them,” Thatcher replied. He was idly leafing through a report that Everett Gabler, a senior trust officer, had just delivered. “They poison enough customers without external assistance.”
“Of course,” Charlie continued, “the Chinese restaurants won’t have any trouble at all. They’ll just give their dishes new names and no one will know the difference.”
In this crisis situation that the head of Chicken Tonight is facing, Thatcher gives him high marks. From page 150:
Thatcher was beginning to appreciate why Frank Hedstrom had shot to the top in the business world. Understanding money is a rare talent. Understanding people is even rarer. Understanding both is damn near nonexistent.
As a detective, Thatcher is blessed with both curiosity and a penchant for tidying up loose strings. See page 161 for a longer analysis along these lines. Unfortunately, there is only a small coterie of suspects, and with one of them behaving most curiously out of character, naming the killer is a feat that should be within the grasp of even the leisurely of armchair detectives. Such as myself, I hasten to add, and the rest of the novel is equally if not even more entertaining.
WILBUR DANIEL STEELE – The Way to the Gold. Doubleday, hardcover, 1955. No paperback edition.
THE WAY TO THE GOLD. 20th Century Fox, 1957. Jeffrey Hunter, Sheree North, Barry Sullivan, Walter Brennan, Neville Brand, Jacques Aubuchon, Ruth Donnelly. Based on the novel by Wilbur Daniel Steele. Director: Robert D. Webb.
Buried somewhere deep inside the three hundred and seventy-five pages of Wilbur Daniel Steele’s The Way to the Gold, there’s a taut adventure tale screaming to get out, and it’s just too bad it didn’t make it, poor thing.
The story starts out like a Gold Medal Original, with Joe Mundy, a young loner embittered beyond his years, jailed for a killing he never done. Joe’s cell mate turns out to be legendary outlaw Ned Glaze, the last of the old-time train robbers, who still holds secret the hiding place of his last haul, a hundred thousand in gold taken in a heist that cost the lives of his partners.
And over the course of about a hundred pages we get to where we knew we were going all along: Joe is a free man, out of jail and on his way to the gold.
Things, of course, just ain’t that simple. Joe’s passport to the small town where the loot is stashed turns out to be a genial, cherubic and very mysterious character named Hannibal, and Joe very quickly finds himself parked in a boarding house populated with surviving relatives of Ned Glaze’s old gang, who seem to think they have a claim on the money. There’s also a hard-boiled waitress with a soft spot for embittered loners and a tough-but-friendly cop who’s clearly got cards he ain’t showing.
Steele takes these promising characters, and over the course of the next hundred-and-some pages, does nothing very much with them as Joe and the story get swallowed up in the trivia of getting along in a small town. And I mean “trivia”. And I mean “swallowed” as The Way to the Gold seems to lose its way somewhere in a novel of suburban life in the mid-50s.
By the time we actually get on our way to the gold, a couple hundred more pages have grunted their way past in constipated movement — at which point we get to where I suspected we were headed all along, and if you didn’t see it coming a long ways back, you just wasn’t looking.
Two years later, Twentieth Century Fox turned this into nothing more than a run-of-the-mill movie with a low-voltage cast, but they did rather well by it. Direction was entrusted to Robert D. Webb, whose films were never all that memorable, but the writing chores were handed to one Wendell Mayes, a writer whose name should be better known.
Mayes was responsible for blockbusters like The Poseidon Adventure and The Spirit of St. Louis, but he also brought in smaller, quirkier efforts like The Hanging Tree andFrom Hell to Texas in fine form.
Here he trims away the fat and returns the story to Gold Medal Original country, where it really always belonged. Gone is the minutia of small town life and endless domestic complications, replaced by a tight, fast-moving narrative that still takes time to appreciate the characters.
Jeffrey Hunter comes off well as bitter, untrusting Joe Mundy, played off against Sheree North in full Kim-Novak-mode as the hard-boiled waitress. Barry Sullivan shows off his type-cast toughness as a local lawman who seems too smart to be hanging around this one-whore town, but pride of place must go to the family of dim-wit bad guys, winnowed down to four by writer Mayes, and perfectly realized by Walter Brennan as a senile old crackpot, Ruth Donnelly as a matriarch in the Lady Macbeth mode, Neville Brand as the brawn of the outfit, and especially Jacques Aubuchon, a busy actor you never heard of, absolutely perfect as the totally inadequate “brains” of the gang.
Given Maye’s ability to impart fast touches of character, and director Webb’s gift for getting out of the way, this cast runs quite capably with a story that really moves, somehow giving the impression that there are real people involved in this paperback plot and bringing things to a fast, satisfying conclusion. The Way to the Gold turns out as a fun thing to watch and a film much much better than its source.