June 2015


Reviewed by JONATHAN LEWIS:         


THE LAST OUTPOST. Paramount Pictures, 1951, Re-released as Cavalry Charge. Ronald Reagan, Rhonda Fleming, Bruce Bennett, Bill Williams, Noah Beery, Peter Hansen, Hugh Beaumont, Lloyd Corrigan. Screenwriters: Geoffrey Homes, Winston Miller, George Worthing Yates Director: Lewis R. Foster.

   The Last Outpost was Ronald Reagan’s first Western film and it’s a darn good one. Directed by Lewis R. Foster, the movie initially feels like it’s going to be just another B-Western about the U.S. Cavalry in the American Southwest. After all, all the stock-in-trade characters are there: the corrupt white man who runs the local trading post; the beautiful girl from back East who’s out of place in the sparsely populated desert; and the newly arrived U.S. Army officer.

   But if you’re just a little bit patient, you’ll find that The Last Outpost is a surprisingly charming, funny, and action-packed movie with a plot that’s complex, but never convoluted.

   Reagan portrays Confederate Army Captain Captain Vance Britton, a Baltimorean who signed up to fight for the Gray, rather than for the Blue. He’s in charge of a Confederate Cavalry brigade positioned out in Arizona. His task is to harass the U.S. Army posted out in the remote desert country. Things get complicated for the always affable Captain Britton (Reagan) once he learns that not only his brother, Col. Jeb Britton (Bruce Bennett) is now stationed at Ft. Gil, Arizona, but that his ex-girlfriend, Julie (Rhonda Fleming) is there too.

   As if that weren’t enough drama for one man to deal with, the Apaches are about to go on the warpath, threatening Whites from both the North and from Dixie.

   Can our hero successfully win back the girl, make amends with his estranged brother, and defeat the Apache? I think you know the answer to that one, but getting there is well more than half the fun in this altogether financially successful film from Pine-Thomas Productions.



HONG KONG. Paramount Pictures, 1952. Re-released as Bombs Over China. Ronald Reagan, Rhonda Fleming, Nigel Bruce, Marvin Miller, Mary Somerville. Director: Lewis R. Foster

   Before there was Indiana Jones, there was Ronald Reagan.

   That’s the impression I had watching Hong Kong, a rather middling adventure film starring the future President as Jeff Williams, an ex-GI turned arms merchant living in China during the Communist takeover. While on the run from the Reds, Williams takes a young Chinese orphan boy under his wing and teams up with the lovely schoolteacher, Victoria Evans (Rhonda Fleming), as the two make their way by plane to Hong Kong.

   Williams may not carry a whip and he’s no archaeologist, but he sports a leather jacket and has his eye on a priceless work of art. There are a couple of bad guys hot on his trail too.

   But while Indiana Jones and The Temple of Doom, another film with a leather jacket wearing hero, a Chinese boy, and a girl, had an edge to it, Hong Kong is a rather plodding affair with little tension and even less adventure.

   Reagan is a formidable screen presence, no doubt, but his character is just too nice for his own good. Even when he tries to be rapacious, he just can’t bring himself to go through with it.

   It’s not that I necessarily wanted the character he portrayed to be a bad guy or sell the orphan down the river, so to speak, as much as I wanted him to be a little more hard-nosed. It’s supposed to be Hong Kong in the late 1940s after all.

REVIEWED BY BARRY GARDNER:


BILL GRANGER – Drover. Jimmy Drover #1. William Morrow, hardcover, May 1991. Avon, paperback, May 1992.

   Bill Granger is the author of the four book Chicago Police series of quite a few years ago (originally published as by Joe Gash, and underrated in my opinion, though one won an Edgar), and the very successful November Man spy series, which now runs to twelve.

   This book introduces his third series, and is about a well-known sportswriter unfairly banned from sportswriting because of alleged contacts with the underworld. The second in the series, Drover and the Zebras, has already been released.

   Jimmy Drover now lives in Santa Cruz, and makes his living investigating various aspects of the sports world for the owner of a Las Vegas book As the story opens, he goes to the aid of an old flame whose husband has killed himself because of gambling debts. Shortly after, an old gangster acquaintance from Chicago contacts him with a story about someone planning a major fix in the NFL, and offering Drover help with his lady’s problem in return for assistance with his own. The plot thickens, bubbles, and boils over.

   Granger creates interesting characters, and tells their story in his usual highly professional manner. Drover and his friends are reasonably engaging (particularly the ex-fireman, Black Kelly, naturally), and the villains — who include professional gamblers, government agents, and Chicago commodity traders — are truly scuzzy. Good, but not great.

— Reprinted from Fireman, Fireman, Save My Books #2, July 1992.


       The Jimmy Drover series —

1. Drover (1991)
2. Drover and the Zebras (1992)

3. Drover and the Designated Hitter (1994)

Note:   There were 13 books in Granger’s “November Man” series, one more than when Barry wrote this review.

Reviewed by DAN STUMPF:         


WALK LIKE A DRAGON Paramount, 1960. Jack Lord, Nobu McCarthy, James Shigeta, Mel Tormé, Josephine Hutchinson, Rodolpho Acosta, Benson Fong, Michael Pate, Lilyan Chauvin, Don “Red” Barry and Lester Matthews. Written by James Clavell and Daniel Mainwaring. Directed by James Clavell. Yes, that James Clavell!

   Not entirely successful, but interesting enough to keep you watching, this plays out like an extended episode of Have Gun Will Travel; it even starts in San Francisco in the 1870s, as Jack Lord is touched by the sight of a Chinese girl (the talented and subtly touching Nobu McCarthy) being auctioned off in a slave market and impulsively buys her to set her free.

   Things of course just ain’t that simple; Nobu got no place to go to (see what I did there?) so Jack takes her back to his small town, where she encounters racial prejudice and slowly wins his heart — betcha didn’t see that coming, didja?

   But they’re only two sides of the equation; there’s another refugee Chinese in town (James Shigeta) trying to earn the respect of the white bigots around him. He loves Nobu too, and I don’t blame him, but he figures the way to go about it is to acquire prowess with a gun so he can face off against Jack Lord.

   There’s also Mel Tormé as The Deacon, a black-clad philosopher-gunman (another nod to Have Gun Will Travel) who sometimes sings(?!) and undertakes to educate James Shigeta in the ways of the gun.

   Well it’s an earnest little film, and off-beat enough to keep the viewer alert, but the problem is that not much happens. People talk, they look askance, they talk a little more, go to Church, talk about going to Church, go shopping, talk about shopping…..

   You get the idea: no chases, fisticuffs, gun battles… not so much as a dogfight to liven things up till near the end, when we get a bit of nicely done and very dramatic gunplay. In fact, as the climax approaches and the three protagonists face off, all motivated by love, Walk achieves some real intensity as – for once in a gunfight — one doesn’t know what to expect.

   The acting is uniformly good here, or maybe it’s just that the characters are better-written than usual. Rodolpho Acosta, normally a villainous Indian or Mexican Bandit, makes a fine cynical lawman. Lilyan Chauvin is a rather complex “saloon gal” and Benson Fong (Tommy Chan in the Monogram Charlie Chan films) gives real depth to his subservient Chinese Laundryman.

   The only one I’m not sure about is Mel Tormé; he’s relaxed, self-assured and handles his lines capably, but he just looks like a jazz singer plunked down in a Western — sort of a cross between a hipster and a singing cowboy.

   This aside though, and if you make allowances for a rather quiet time of it, Walk Like a Dragon will hold your attention and even offer a few surprises.

Reviewed by DAVID VINEYARD:          


JOHN McPARTLAND – The Face of Evil. Gold Medal #393, paperback original, 1954. BlackMask.com, softcover, 2006.

   There’s always a little trouble. Some lad from New York’s midtown or Chicago decides to make himself a score for ten thousand or so with a touch of blackmail or extortion. “Call Bill Oxford. He’ll handle it. The kid’s tough and smart and he knows everybody.”


   Bill Oxford is tough as nails and not very nice. He used to be a hot shot newsman during the war, worked on the legendary military paper Yank with people like Marion Hargrove (See Here Private Hargrove, well known screen and television writer), then, still young, he went to the city, got a job as a ‘sharpshooter’ on a big paper, the kind of guy who knew people and things, the kind of guy who would put a blackmailer or extortionist in their place for you, fix a scandal, break a few skulls. Then he went to work in advertising for the Agency, for Roger Mooney …With Roger Mooney you say, ‘Sure, Roger,’ and jump through whatever hoops he’s holding.

   Roger Mooney has a client running for office in Balboa, California. He’s not a very good candidate, in fact he’s a very bad one, and he has some problems, namely an honest lawyer named Ringling Black, who has the goods on the client and is about to broadcast them. All Bill Oxford has to do is fix things.

   “You go down to Balboa. Frame this Black. Frame him hard and fast. Maybe with a woman. Something like that, something plenty nasty.”


   You don’t have to be all that clever to figure out this is a paperback original from Gold Medal by the underrated John MacPartland, whose books like Big Red’s Daughter, The Kingdom of Johnny Cool, and Tokyo Doll were hardboiled in the vein of John D. MacDonald or Charles Williams — not just a rehash of Hammett, Chandler, and Cain, but a new vision of the hard-boiled nineteen fifties, suburban rather than urban, small town or small city politics instead of Chi town or NYC.

   MacPartland’s mean streets were often in such settings. His prose was hard and tight with flourishes of dark beauty, but never showy:

   Two women called to me, “Bill!” Nile’s voice and Ann’s. I walked along the night-black street alone.

   Outside it was cool and dark with a fresh wind from the bay. I left the car in the parking lot and walked toward the couple of blocks that were downtown Balboa.

   Downstairs for a drink at the bar. It was crowded now, and there was the laughter of women, the low voices of men. A good bunch — the women all beautiful or close to it, the men rich-man brown and with good clothes.

   I went to her, quietly, and put my arms around her, hunted her mouth with mine. She pushed at me with her hands, tried to say something, and then I found her. It was stepping out of reality into something I had never known before. This was the whirlpool.

   Sometimes I would try to say something, a fragment of a word, a quick whisper of “Nile!” Nothing else. The drunkenness burned away, and I forgot everything but Nile.

   There was no exhaustion, no satiety. In time, a long time, there was a gray light on the long row of windows, a rim of light over the roundness of the hills.


   There are two women, Nile Lisbon, widow of well loved John Lisbon, friend of Ringling Black, girlfriend of tough sadistic King McCarthy, and Balboa’s assistant district attorney, a woman too dangerous to be with and too beautiful to ignore. In anyone else’s hands Nile would be a femme fatale, in MacPartland’s she is bruised and lost and hard to resist, good and bad, sweet and sour. You would know Nile if you saw her, be attracted, but unless you were Bill Oxford you would likely back away:

   She was the kind of woman a man noticed, mostly because of her eyes. Dark, almost black pools, they had a warmth that I felt could turn to fire. She had turned her head, looking over the shoulder of the man she was with, and we looked at each other. The third or fourth time it happened he noticed it and I paid some attention to what he was like.


   Nile gets Oxford in a fight with King the first thing. It doesn’t seem to bother him much. Then there is Ann Field. Six years earlier there at been a thing between them:

   Yeah, sure, Ann. Cute and trim as a palomino colt, that girl.


   Not now though. Ann has changed and how she feels about Bill has changed:

   Now she was sleek, a jungle animal who’d been caught and caged in a filthy zoo too long, the kind of girl who describes herself as a model but who does no modeling. Her eyes weren’t wide, nor was the world new and good to her. Any man could see all that.


   Ann doesn’t have good memories of Bill: “Don’t hello me, you son-of-a-bitch. I’ll kill you and spit on your corpse.”

   Then to round things out there are the hard drunk kids in town for spring break and Mooney’s enforcer Whitey D’Arcy, who owns a car dealership and owns more than a few cops. Mooney and D’Arcy play hard:

   Mooney had used hired killers where it had been necessary years ago. California had been a rough state in the late 1930’s. The chips were down for Mooney today.

   Whitey D’Arcy was not an idiot. We both knew what it was about. If I gave him trouble I’d pay for it, hard, but not here and not now. Likely I’d get my kidneys broken; it was the number-one big payoff for trouble guys.


   Bill finds himself suddenly with a conscious and a need to pay back for his sins. Redemption could get him killed when Ringling Black is shot and the evidence against Mooney’s client goes missing. The cops work for D’Arcy and want Bill, and his only allies are the seductive Nile and the wounded Ann.

   Maybe the ending is a little sentimental. Maybe it should have been harder and with less hope, more Woolrich’s doomed fate haunted heroes or one of David Goodis hopeless losers, Jim Thompson’s amoral heroes would have handled things differently.

   I like how MacPartland ends it. He writes hard-boiled movie prose and writes well. You can hear the music rise and see John Payne or Robert Mitchum and maybe Liz Scott or Gloria Grahame walk away, a little less hard, a bit wiser, a touch more human than they began:

   Ann and I left the Hut and walked toward the ocean. We could hear the music and the young voices of the nine days of Easter through the night.

   The roar of the long combers breaking into the surf was loud and the moon was rising in silver over the sea blackness. “This is what I wanted to do with you six years ago, Bill. Walk along the dunes and wait for the night to end.”

   “We can do it now, Ann. It’s not too late for us.”


   Maybe it is, maybe not, MacPartland clearly likes the idea they can be saved, but he hasn’t sugar coated who Ann is or what Bill was. He has portrayed them as who they were, shown us what they could do and did do. He’s taken us down darker and meaner streets than the romantic private knights of Chandler or the tough birds Hammett gave us. These streets are inhabited by people we know and people we saw in the towns we lived in. Those of us who worked on newspapers or advertising knew the Bill Oxfords of the world. Some of us have known Nile Lisbon and Ann Field in one guise or another.

   If you worked in advertising you knew Roger Mooney, maybe not quite so lethal, and you surely knew of Whitey D’Arcy if you never knew him personally if you grew up in a certain size city.

   The Face of Evil, sometimes it is in a mirror, sometimes it is someone we know, a power broker like Mooney, a big fish in a small pool like D’Arcy, sometimes a bully like King. Sometimes it is just the corruption of small town America. John MacPartland captures the loss of innocence, the yearning for something that never really was, the hope of redemption, and the cost of making a stand finally.

   This isn’t a great book, but it’s a very good one. It will keep you up to finish in a single reading and leave you satisfied. It’s one of those Gold Medal novels that you recall with real fondness and if you write yourself a touch of awe. Maybe he isn’t in the very first rank, but he isn’t far off it either. It’s nice to read a book once in a while that just reaffirms why you started reading in this genre in the first place. There are times you don’t want a masterpiece, just a master at his best.

Reviewed by JONATHAN LEWIS:         


THE LAST OUTPOST. Paramount Pictures, 1935. Cary Grant, Claude Rains, Gertrude Michael, Kathleen Burke, Colin Tapley, Margaret Swope. Based on the novel The Drum by F. Britten Austin. Directors: Charles Barton & Louis J. Gasnier.

   As much as I like Cary Grant and as much as I appreciate Claude Rains, I still couldn’t find much to truly admire in The Last Outpost, a meandering romance-during-wartime melodrama.

   Grant portrays Michael Andrews, a British officer captured by the Turks during the First World War. A British intelligence officer, a mysterious man who calls himself “Smith” (Rains), comes to Andrews’ rescue and frees him from Ottoman captivity.

   The two men make their way through Mesopotamia, Kurdish tribesmen hot on their trail. Andrews ends up injured and back in a British hospital in Cairo, where he falls for his nurse, Rosemary Haydon (Gertrude Michael). But all is not as it seems, for Haydon is actually married to a British intelligence officer who she hasn’t seen for three long years.

   By now, I’m sure you’ve figured out who that intelligence officer must be.

   Based on F. Britten Austin’s novel, The Drum, the movie would probably have been all but forgotten had Grant and Rains not appeared in it. The plot is formulaic, there’s a whole lot of stock footage, and the cinematography is nothing special. If you’re looking for a World War I film to watch, you can do a lot better than this mediocre programmer.

SYDNEY HOSIER – Most Baffling, Mrs. Hudson. Avon, paperback original, January 1998.

   This was a nice idea, based on just the one in hand, but one that was only indifferently carried out. Other readers may have thought so too, as the series lasted a total of only four books, of which this is the third.

   Not that Most Baffling is bad, for it isn’t. The concept is that Mrs. Hudson, having had some success in solving mysteries on her own, has become an inquiry agent herself, independent of her boarder upstairs. Holmes himself does not appear, not does Dr. Watson, but one of the former’s discarded suits does play a small role.

   Mrs. Hudson has her own Watson, so the speak, although her friend and live-in companion Mrs. Warner, or Vi, short for Violet, does not tell the story. She’s there primarily for comic relief and of course to have someone on hand to bounce ideas off of, and vice versa.

   In Most Baffling, the two are hired by a lady whose husband was killed at a party under the most unusual of circumstances. In spite of a large number of people being present in the room, no one heard the fatal shot, nor did anyone see who did it.

   In terms of period detail, the setting as described is at least satisfactory, and the dialogue is mostly OK, to my tin ear. In terms of the mystery itself, Mrs. Hudson and her friend Vi do not do a lot of detecting. It is more a matter of serendipitous luck, shall we say. A neighbor down the street who Mrs. Hudson happens to meet and chat with for the first time, for example, connects her with another fellow who just happens to be intimately involved with the murder.

   A gathering of all the suspects in one room at the end gets us on familiar ground, to be true, but the “impossible” nature of the crime needs to be talked about, I think. I will discuss the solution to the case in more detail as part of the first comment, so please be warned in advance before heading there. All in all, enjoyable enough in its fashion, but I’m unlikely to read another.

       The Mrs. Hudson series —

1. Elementary, Mrs. Hudson (1996)

2. Murder, Mrs. Hudson (1997)
3. Most Baffling, Mrs. Hudson (1998)
4. The Game’s Afoot, Mrs. Hudson (1998)

THE BACKWARD REVIEWER
William F. Deeck


GLENN M. BARNS – Murder Is a Gamble. Phoenix Press, hardcover, 1952. Bestseller Mystery #162, digest-sized paperback, no date [1953]. Wildside Press, softcover, 2010.

   This is a most surprising entry from the legendary Phoenix Press. It is a reasonably literate, reasonably entertaining private-eye novel with a sort of locked-room murder.

   Jonathan (Jonny) Marks is assigned by the agency he works for to be a bodyguard to Col. Alexander Smallwood. Part of the deal that the Colonel arranges with the agency is that, should he be murdered, the agency will make sure that the Colonel’s killer is apprehended and brought to justice.

   The Colonel, it turns out, is a card player of some ability and not a great deal of honesty. He has enemies because of this talent, but these apparently are not the people about whom he is worried.

   For reasons known only to himself, the Colonel dismisses Marks, and then is found dead in his hotel room, an apparent suicide. Marks, of course, is convinced that the Colonel was murdered, although no one came up on the elevator to the Colonel’s floor, the doors to the stairs are locked automatically each night, and the few other people on the floor appear to be innocent, at least of murder.

   The police sergeant, surprisingly intelligent in a novel of this type, is sure that it was suicide, but says he is willing to change his mind if Marks can come up with some proof.

   Marks’s investigation is somewhat haphazard, the motive of the murderer is somewhat untenable, and the solution to the “locked room” is a bit disappointing. Still, Marks is a rather interesting character, and the writing is way, way above average for a Phoenix Press book.

— Reprinted from The MYSTERY FANcier, Vol. 9, No. 4, July-August 1987.

Bibliographic Note:   Of the seven criminous titles under Barns’s byline in Al Hubin’s Crime Fiction IV, one other is a case solved by Jonathan Marks, that being Murder Is Insane (Lippincott, 1956). I know nothing about this second book, but I cannot resist pointing out that Lippincott was ranked much more highly in publishing circles than Phoenix Press was, then and now.

FLIRTING WITH DANGER. Monogram, 1934. Robert Armstrong, Edgar Kennedy, William Cagney, Maria Alba, Marion Burns. Director: Vin Moore.

   Titles can be deceiving, and this one is one of them. When it comes to old movies such as this one, I try to know as little as possible about them when I pick one out to watch, and this one fooled me, but good. I thought it might be a relatively unknown crime film with a good-looking female participant or two, but it turned out to be an almost totally unknown comedy film about the happy-go-lucky adventures of three powder mixers for a dynamite factory.

   And that’s about all the plot there is, mixed in with a little girl chasing and explosions going off at funny times, leaving Edgar Kennedy, mostly, with blackened face or hanging from the highest branch of a handy nearby tree.

   But when “Lucky” Davis (William Cagney, of yes that Cagney family) gets serious about one of the girls he finds charming, and vice versa, the two other fellows concoct a plan to keep them apart. So off to South America they all go, cheerfully wondering in passing when the next revolution will start.

   The story line is so negligible I probably wouldn’t bothered writing up this review but for the fact that the film has only one user comment on IMDb and no external ones.

   The fact that it has enough charm to it to have kept me watching all the way through has to mean something, however. The three male stars are also no slouches in the acting field, even if William Cagney’s career eventually went off in other directions.

   Bonus piece of trivia: Carol Tevis, the girl with the high-pitched voice and stutter who was briefly romanced by Robert Armstrong’s character is said to have provided the voice at one time for Walt Disney’s Minnie Mouse, not to mention one of the Munchkins.

PAINTED LADY. Joint production of Granada Television (UK) and PBS (US). Broadcast in the UK, December 1997. Two-part mini-series, approximately 3 1/2 hours without commercials. Broadcast in US on Masterpiece Theatre, April-May 1998. Helen Mirren, Iain Glen, Franco Nero, Michael Maloney, Lesley Manville, Iain Cuthbertson, Barry Barnes, Michael Liebmann, John Kavanagh. Writer: Allan Cubitt. Director: Julian Jarrold.

   From what I’ve read about this particular production, this was designed to be a showcase for Helen Mirren’s acting talents after she’d finished five years of playing DCI/Supt. Jane Tennison on Prime Suspect.

   And display them she does, with Mirren first appearing as Maggie Sullivan, a more-or-less involuntarily retired folk-rock singer staying in Ireland in the lodge house of her benefactor, Charles Stafford, then after his murder, transforming herself into a (supposedly) wealthy Polish countess Magdelena Kreschinskaá in order to enter the fast-paced world of fine art in London.

   Her objective: to track down the only painting that was stolen in the aborted robbery that turned tragically to Stafford’s death. Supporting her with the funds to begin the masquerade are her half-sister and her husband, both notables in London’s art circles, and agreeing to her plan only with amusing doubts. Her purpose: to obtain the money Stafford’s son owes a local Irish gangster, and the reason the robbery was staged in the first place.

   The actors, the photography and the setting are all top notch — a statement that includes Franco Nero as a Italian art dealer whose path crosses that of the countess in more ways than one — a fact that accounts for the rave reviews this TV mini-series has gained from most, but not all sources.

   And therein I also am in the minority. Those of us who prefer stories that make sense, that aren’t wrapped up in five minutes at the end after watching a slow and deliberately paced work of television for well over three hours, and yes, dare I say it, more bloody violence than I expected to see in a very elegant tale of high art and sophisticated people.

   The latter could be forgiven, though, if some effort had been into making a coherent whole out of a lot of very nice pieces, and I do mean mean nice. Some scenes are extremely well done. I wish I could be more positive about this, but in all honesty, I can’t.

REVIEWED BY BARRY GARDNER:


WILLIAM G. TAPPLY – Tight Lines. Brady Coyne #11. Delacorte Press, hardcover, 1992. Dell, paperback, 1993.

   I like the Brady Coyne books. This isn’t bis best, but it isn’t bad, either. One of Coyne’s wealthy clients (for those of you not familiar with the series, he’s a lawyer whose specialty is ministering the needs of the very wealthy) is dying of cancer, and hires him to find her estranged daughter.

   She hasn’t seen or heard from her in a decade or more (for reasons she doesn’t understand) and wants both to be reconciled, if possible, and to take care of some complicated estate matters. Coy Coyne tries to avoid the chore, but eventually acquiesces.

   He locates her residence, but she is not there. The girl is a card-carrying neurotic, Coyne discovers, with several past and present older lovers to her credit, plus a psychiatrist. Shortly thereafter her body is discovered in a New Hampshire pond under ambiguous circumstances. The rest is a fairly standard excursion into her past and charader, with the identity of the doer of the deed eventually discovered, and justice sort of served.

   As usual Coyne is likeable and Tapply does a good job of pacing the story. I think he’s a very competent writer, but for some reason I wasn’t able to get involved with this set of players; perhaps my mood, perhaps not. I saw the ending coming, and thought it weak and not well enough set up, but so-so. Tapply is still worth reading. Recommended, though not strongly.

— Reprinted from Fireman, Fireman, Save My Books #2, July 1992.


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