April 2016


CRACKERJACK. General Film Distributors, UK, 1938. Released in the US as The Man with 100 Faces. Tom Walls, Lili Palmer, Noel Madison, Leon M. Lion, Edmond Breon. Screenplay A.R. Rawlinson; adaptation by Basil Mason Based on the novel by W. B. N. Ferguson Directed by Albert de Courville.

   Crackerjack is a fast-paced British comedy mystery replete with a mysterious monocled gentleman thief (the Crackerjack of the title: “Don’t think because I wear this eyeglass I won’t drop you,” he warns a roomful of criminals he holds at gunpoint), a beautiful Baroness who used to be a spy, and a dancing and singing troupe of airborne hold up-men, complete with two musical numbers. I honestly can’t think what more you could want from a thirties British film.

   The film opens as Sculpie (Noel Madison) and his gang pull a daring daylight robbery of a millionaire diamond merchant on a plane. On board the plane is monocled Jack Drake (Tom Walls), a droll type who calmly decks a Scotland Yard man to save him from Sculpie. When Sculpie and his pals drop the passengers off though and take off with the plane they soon find they have an empty case, no swag, and someone else has the diamonds.

   The someone else is Crackerjack, Jack Drake, who has turned Robin Hood to finance his charitable work when his own fortune dwindled from too many good deeds. He even writes a bestselling book about himself that sets London on its ear, but when the hospital he financed needs money and his bank draft overages press it is time for Crackerjack to strike again, this time in London where his one time inamorata, Baroness Von Halz (Lili Palmer), is visiting and would like nothing more than to see the man who left her waiting in Berlin (not knowing he and his secretary barely escaped the police), but for whom she still has feelings.

   Crackerjack strikes again at an elegant ball (“Today I endow an crib, tomorrow I crack one.”), and again Sculpie and gang hit the same target and come up short, this time killing a man; something Crackerjack won’t tolerate. Meanwhile Baroness Von Halz old friend Golding (Leon M. Lion) tells her he lost a family heirloom to Crackerjack at the ball and asks her aid as a one time German spy in contacting Crackerjack. If he can catch him in the act, maybe he can persuade him to return the heirloom.

   Little does the Baroness know that Golding is the fence for Sculpie’s gang and the trap is a deadly one or that her beloved Jack Drake is Crackerjack. She sets up the meeting with Crackerjack who remains hidden and arranges for him to steal some papers she claims she is being blackmailed with.

   Drake knows it is a setup (“I’ll do anything for you,” he tells the Baroness, “but drop my ‘aitches.”), but he can’t resist heisting all the goodies the gang stole and betraying them to the friendly policeman he saved on the plane, who having recovered most of the loot from the theft of the ball and captured the murderers could care less if Crackerjack gets away.

   Walls, seems an odd choice for hero, and it is more than a bit difficult to imagine that the young and lovely Palmer is head over heels in love with him. For one thing he is middle aged, balding, has a huge beak of a nose, no chin, jowls, and a silly ass upper class English twit manner better suited to Bertie Wooster than Simon Templar — in fact he wouldn’t be a terrible Peter Wimsey — but the film is so good-natured, short, fast paced, and often clever you quickly warm to its hero, or at least don’t mind him too much.

   I know nothing sbout Walls, but assume he was a popular stage or music hall star, since the film seems designed to exploit his persona. Palmer, on the other hand, is young and beautiful, and the scenes with her show her off to great advantage, even if she hasn’t a lot to do but look decorative. Noel Madison was usually cast as American gangsters in British films and plays a variation of that here in a Jack LaRue, Marc Lawrence, Joseph Calleia key.

   Droll, rapid-paced, relatively clever sub-Saintly stuff with a minor league gentleman thief in the Raffles/Lupin/Baron vein, Crackerjack is an attractive, sprightly, witty, little distraction that leaves a much better taste behind than you might expect it to when it starts. It also helps there is no moralizing or preaching here. It isn’t giving anything away to say the hero gets the girl and the swag and flies away with both, nose firmly thumbed to propriety, Hollywood’s Code, and any and all dull moralists watching.

   Considering that it came as a total surprise that I stumbled upon quite by accident, having never heard of the film or the book it is based on I could not be more pleased with the result.


From the two-disc Guy Clark tribute album This One’s For Him (2011):


PETER PAN. Paramount Pictures, 1924. George Ali, Esther Ralston, Cyril Chadwick, Mary Brian, Jack Murphy, Philippe deLacy, Virginia Browne Faire, Betty Bronson, Anna May Wong, Ernest Torrence (Captain Hook). Based on the play by J. M. Barrie. Director: Herbert Brenon. Shown at Cinevent 31, Columbus OH, May 1999.

   The high point of the convention for any silent film fan was the screening of Herbert Brenon’s Peter Pan, accompanied by a score written by Phil Carli and performed by the Flower City Society Orchestra at the piano and conducting.

   I have a dimly transferred dupe of the film that did not prepare me for the overwhelming experience of viewing a pristine print in an intimate theater on the Ohio State University campus.

   Betty Bronson was the Peter Pan of Barrie’s dreams (unless he preferred a male actor), and her closeups achieved a beauty and poignancy that I cannot begin to describe. The cast was impeccable, with Ernest Torrence a commanding Captain Hook, Mary Briana remarkable Wendy, and Virginia Brown Faire a duplicitous Tinker Bell for whom, nonetheless, the entire audience clapped to restore her to life.

   The most indelible performance, however, was that of George Ali, as Nana the dog, a performance someone said he had played hundreds of times on the London stage. Even people who aren’t overly fond of dogs would surely have been touched by his miming.

   There were several films I enjoyed [at this convention], although nothing reached the level of Peter Pan.

  JEROME BARRY – Murder Is No Accident. Dell D369, paperback; 1st printing, May 1960. Originally published in hardcover by Doubleday Crime Club, 1957, as Extreme License. Cover art by Ted Coconis.

   Jerome Barry was a prolific writer of stories, vignettes and poetry for the slicks of the 1930s and early 40s, magazines such as The Saturday Evening Post, Collier’s and Liberty. His first hardcover mystery was Murder with Your Malted, the first of three detective novels featuring a soda jerk named Chick Varney who does the investigative chores.

   I’ve not read any of those, but it’s my impression that they were lighthearted in nature, in a sophisticated Manhattan sort of way. Whether this is a correct assessment or not, this book, Murder Is No Accident, the paperback title, was a book that definitely takes itself seriously. I don’t believe there’s more than a half-hearted chuckle to be had anywhere along the way, if that much.

   The story can be broken into three distinct parts. The first 75 pages are as dark in tone and noirish in style as anything written by Cornell Woolrich, while the middle portion of the book turns into an adolescent (and not nearly as interesting) coming-of-age story before its muddles its way into a conclusion that’s totally conventional in presentation and about as convincing.

   What this is is the story of a 17-year-old boy who’s hired by a man who has tired of his mistress’s demands, and so he is looking around for a way to rid himself of her. Young Joey Tripp, he decides, will be the means. But Joey, as chance would have it, survives the crash Chester Baggot cooks up on his behalf, as well as the lady’s, leaving a dead hitchhiker in his place.

   On the run, Joey holes up in a old-fashioned rest home in upstate New York, where he finds an unusual assortment of patients there for various reasons, one an older but still attractive woman with a glint in her eye for Joey, who is interested in return, but he’s more attracted to the young girl who is in charge of the facility.

   But murder has a way of coming back to haunt you, meaning in this case both Joey and Baggot, who is briefly blackmailed, a sidebar that seems to go nowhere, but then it all wraps up with a fight to the death on the edge of a cliff.

   I liked the first 75 pages. The rest of the book runs out of steam after a while, but in 1960 it was probably well worth the 35¢ cover price, especially with that eye-catching Coconis cover.

I don’t know anything about playing the Hammond B3 organ, but to me this is awesome, if not physically impossible:


BEAST OF THE YELLOW NIGHT. New World Pictures, 1971. John Ashley, Mary Wilcox, Leopoldo Salcedo, Eddie Garcia, Ken Metcalfe, Vic Diaz. Screenwriter-director: Eddie Romero.

   It’s never a good sign when, fifteen minutes or so into a movie, you decide to pick up the DVD case and read the back of it to help you figure out what in the world is going on. Unfortunately, that’s what I felt compelled to do watching the opening of the Eddie Romero’s Filipino/American horror production, Beast of the Yellow Night.

   Sure, it’s a low budget horror film, but the plot seemed so incredibly muddled and the picture quality (Alpha Video) was pretty low, so I needed some context as to what was transpiring in front of my very eyes.

   That said, once I had some idea of the basic plot and once the movie finally started to make a little more sense, I began to appreciate — ever so slightly – Beast of the Yellow Night for what it is: namely, a grindhouse film that tries to be philosophical and one which occasionally succeeds in elevating a forgettable werewolf film into something bordering on the thoughtful, admirably so, and yet one which mainly falls flat.

   Former pop sensation John Ashley portrays two characters. The first, Joseph Langdon, is an American soldier who deserted his unit in the Philippines and engaged in all sorts of nefarious acts. In order to save himself from Filipino soldiers hot on his trail, Langdon makes a devil’s bargain – literally – with Satan (a grinning, scenery chewing Vic Diaz).

   Some decades later, Langdon returns to life in the guise of American businessman, Philip Rogers. Satan wants Rogers to do his nefarious bidding, but when Rogers refuses, he soon learns that he’s cursed. Disobey the devil and you turn into a hideous beast, or so it would seem. That’s about all there is to the movie.

   And one more thing: Joseph Langdon may be a tortured soul, but he’s no Larry Talbot.

KIN PLATT – The Screwball King Murder. Random House, hardcover, 1978. No paperback edition.

   Private eye Max Roper’s latest sports-related caper involves the not-so-accidental drowning of a flaky left-hander who had just signed a million-dollar contract to pitch for the Los Angeles Dodgers.

   Murder follows Roper like a well-trained puppy, but baseball fans will be disappointed to learn that the motive for Hondo Kenyon’s death really lies in the totally antithetical world of skin flicks and acid rock.

   Slick, and superficial, detective work.

Rating:   C.

— Reprinted from The MYSTERY FANcier, Vol. 2, No. 6, Nov-Dec 1978. This review also appeared earlier in the Hartford Courant.

      The Max Roper series —

The Pushbutton Butterfly (1970)

The Kissing Gourami (1973)
The Princess Stakes Murder (1973)
The Giant Kill (1974)
Match Point for Murder (1975)
The Body Beautiful Murder (1976)

The Screwball King Murder (1978)

A live version of this song from acoustic blues-rock singer Les Sampou’s 2010 album Lonesomeville.


MAURICE HELBRANT – Narcotic Agent. Ace Double-15, paperback, abridged, 1953. Originally published in hardcover by Vanguard Press, 1941.

   This is one of the most expensive books in my collection, so I read it carefully, but when I finished I had to wonder what all the fuss is about.

   Don’t get me wrong; Narcotic Agent is a tough, reasonably well-written book, and as a document from the days when attitudes towards drugs and drug-users were very different, it’s a vivid artifact of its time.

   Helbrant was a Federal Narcotics agent for more than 15 years, beginning in the days of Prohibition, and during that time he seems to have carried out his job with admirable professionalism, which comes through very effectively in his account of those days: calm, matter-of-fact, and untinged by that megalomania one finds in the ghost-written memoirs of J. Edgar Hoover. He’s just a guy doing a dangerous job and doing it well.

   It’s this professionalism in fact that mitigates against Narcotic Agent as literature. There’s no clear narrative line here, just a simple recounting of case after case (after case, after case…) of him working, usually undercover, with drug addicts and stool pigeons to catch their dealers and thence to the organized gangs of dealers.

   Helbrant occasionally stops to reflect on the nature of Narcotics and their effect on Society in his day, but not often; usually just a few lines about why he’s doing all this and then back to the job at hand. One appreciates the competence, and the absence of sanctimony — rare in books about Drugs in those days — but the result is only readable, not entertaining.

   All of which left me wondering why Narcotic Agent is such a valuable book. Copies can go for as much as $5,000, which is surprising for a tome as ordinary as this. Perhaps someday I’ll flip it over and see if the other side is any good….

THE RAY BRADBURY THEATER. “The Crowd.” HBO, season 1, episode 3 (2 July 1985). Nick Mancuso, R. H. Thomson, David Hughes. Hosted and based on the story by Ray Bradbury. Director: Ralph L. Thomas.

   This one’s a ghost story, and like most ghost stories, it doesn’t make a lick of sense. It’s slickly done, with high production values, and there are some appreciably spooky moments. But it didn’t work for me in any way, shape, or form, and I can’t tell you too much as to why without issuing a Spoiler Alert, so consider it done.

   The idea is that a survivor of a near deadly automobile incident can’t figure out how such a loud noisy crowd of people formed around the scene of the accident so quickly. (The tires hadn’t even stopped spinning.) Probing further, he discovers that the same crowd of individuals were seen (via videotape) at many other such accidents, most of them fatal. Against the advice of a good friend, he makes the mistake of trying to find out more.

   To me, with a logical mind, the question is not how these crowds of ghostly origin form so quickly, but why. I don’t remember how it’s replied to in the story, but this 27 minute cable TV episode answers with mirrors, atmosphere, glitz and special effects. It doesn’t go anywhere near a reason and relies instead on a knock-em-out finale that’s there for shock value only.

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