HIT LADY. Made-for-TV, Spelling-Goldberg / ABC-TV, 08 October 1974. Yvette Mimieux, Joseph Campanella, Clu Gulager, Dack Rambo, Keenan Wynn. Screenwriter: Yvette Mimieux. Director: Tracy Keenan Wynn.
It must have seemed to be a good idea on paper, or even in publicity stills, as Yvette Mimieux does look very good in a bikini as a drop-dead gorgeous assassin-for-hire in this made for ABC-TV movie production. While romancing would-be targets, she has a boy friend on the side whom she must keep the truth from. But from there the story is extremely weak, and there are huge questions left unanswered — if not gaping holes in logic — in terms of the final product, even regarding the “surprise” twist at the end.
I was going to say more, but why should I? I’ve already said everything I can think of to say.
JOHN M. PATTERSON – Doubly Dead. Doubleday, US, hardcover, 1969. Curtis #6118, US, paperback, no date. First published in the UK by Robert Hale, hardcover, 1969.
Can recuperation be considered a holiday? I certainly hope so. Recovering from influenza, Henry Moffatt goes with his wife, Poncie, to regain his strength with Henry’s old friend, Piers Hartley, on the Isle of Jersey. For a while the visit is idyllic, but then murder intrudes and Poncie is a prime suspect.
Lots of humor here, with some interesting and likable characters, though the baddies are a bit too evidently villainous. Crime-novel readers who like the scenic tour will be especially pleased, for the author provides fascinating information about Jersey.
As I was reading this novel, I got the impression there was at least one with Henry and Poncie preceding it. It turns out though, to be Patterson’s only mystery. A pity.
HOUSE OF THE ARROW Associated British Pictures, UK, 1953, Oskar Holmoka, Yvonne Furneaux, Robert Urquhart, Josephine Green, Harold Kasket, Pierre Le Fevre. Screenplay by Edward Dryhurst, based on the novel by A. E. W. Mason. Directed by Michael Anderson.
Alfred Edward Wooley Mason was a bestselling novelist whose works included such classic tales of adventure and mystery as The Four Feathers, No Other Tiger, Sapphire, Fire Over England, The Drum, and stories such as “The Crystal Trench” (adapted on Alfred Hitchcock Presents with Hitchcock himself directing); a literary icon whose circle of friends and collaborators in theater included Henry James, Joseph Conrad, Ford Maddox Ford, Anthony Hope Hawkins (The Prisoner of Zenda), and Stephen Crane; an agent of British Naval Intelligence whose pre-WWI Spanish network would still be functioning successfully, and much to the benefit of the Allies, in the Second World War and into the post War era; and, perhaps most importantly here, the author of five acclaimed mystery novels and one short story featuring Inspector Hanaud of the Sureté who was the inspiration for Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot and his “little gray cells.”
House of the Arrow is perhaps the most famous of the Hanaud novels, as evidenced by it having been filmed three times, first in 1930 with Benita Hume and Dennis Nielson-Terry as Hanaud; then in 1940 with Diana Churchill and Kenneth Kent as Hanaud; and, finally, this version in 1953 with Yvonne Furneaux and Oscar Holmoka as Hanaud.
This version, updated to modern post-war France begins in Dijon in the Burgundy region of France where Jeanne Marie Harlowe, an elderly and sickly widow, has just died apparently in the natural order of things. At the reading of her will Madame Harlowe leaves her fortune and estate to her adopted daughter Betty (Yvonne Furneaux) much to the consternation of her brother-in-law, from her first marriage Boris Waberski (Harold Kasket), who believes the fortune should go to him.
Shortly afterward Waberski makes a formal accusation against Betty of having murdered her adopted mother, prompting Betty’s companion, Englishwoman Ann Upcott (Josephine Green), to write Betty’s British solicitor for help.
Responding is Jim Frobisher (Robert Urquhart) who arrives in Paris to talk with the officer of the Sureté assigned the case, Inspector Hanaud (Oskar Holmoka, dapper rather than rumpled for once, even the famous eyebrows tamed), who seems quite surprised his upcoming visit to Dijon is known since he only just decided to go.
Hanaud settles the phony case brought by Waberski in short order, but things aren’t as they seem, he is certain of one thing: “If murder was done I mean to know, and I mean to avenge.” And what with a mysterious seller of illicit chemicals, accusing letters popping up everywhere, mysterious voices, and a missing arrow — it’s waxed point preserving an exotic untraceable poison — it becomes clear Hanaud has every reason to be suspicious.
What, if anything does the empty house next door, once occupied by the Germans, have to do with the mysterious goings on? Who is writing the poison pen letters and why? Why are the two young women so secretive? Whose voice did Ann hear the night of the murder, and why does the clock she saw seem smaller in daylight? Where is the mysterious poisoned arrow Hanaud discovered referenced in a book from the Harlowe library at the drug sellers business?
When a second murder, that of the seller of illicit drugs, occurs Hanaud must act fast before a third murder and injustice can further complicate matters.
Mason’s longish novel is savagely condensed, but thanks to atmospheric direction by Michael Anderson (Around the World in 80 Days), good use of shadow and light and clever but unobtrusive camera angles in limited but well done sets, above all Holmoka’s delightful turn as the vain, brilliant, playful, and very Gallic Hanaud, and a script that manages to keep things mostly clear in the mind of the viewer while still preserving a few surprises, this is a superior mystery film.
Though, as in the novel, and in many mystery novels and films, Hanaud causes quite a bit of the tension himself by revealing so little, but at least in this one with some justification.
I first read of this film ages ago in William K. Everson’s The Detective in Film, and it has taken me forty some years to catch up with it, but it proved well worth it. House of the Arrow is a wry, intelligent, atmospheric, fast paced, mystery with a tour de force performance by Oskar Holmoka as Hanaud. Whatever its minor flaws, they are more than compensated for by the films intelligence, wit, and fidelity to the spirit if not the exact word of Mason’s classic novel.
If you are looking for a fine adaptation of a classic mystery novel ably brought to the screen with skill and wit, you could not do better.
20,000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA. Walt Disney / Buena Vista, 1954. Kirk Douglas, James Mason, Paul Lukas, Peter Lorre. Based on the novel by Jules Verne. Director: Richard Fleischer.
Although this 1954 Walt Disney production, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea doesn’t quite hit the mark as a cinematic adaptation of a literary text, it nevertheless succeeds wildly as an auditory and visual spectacle. As the first science fiction film to be shot in CinemaScope, this Technicolor film resonates with some absolutely lavish color schemes, beautiful underwater photography, and crisp portraits of the main characters.
Add to that the wonderful score by Paul Smith, and you have yourself a borderline operatic experience in which repetitive leitmotifs guide the viewer off the California coast, into the vast Pacific, and underneath the ocean in Captain Nemo’s proto-steampunk submarine, the Nautilus.
Based on the eponymous Jules Verne novel, this Richard Fleischer directed movie features James Mason as Captain Nemo, a mysterious man who is a renegade madman/visionary. He and his crew have been sailing underneath the Pacific in a (for its time) technologically advanced submarine, destroying warships in its wake. On board are his three captives, all survivors of an American naval vessel that he ordered destroyed. The three men could not be more different, in both personality and temperament. There’s the brawny Ned Land (Kirk Douglas); the erudite scientist, Professor Pierre Aronnax (Paul Lukas); and his neurotic, stout assistant, Conseil (Peter Lorre). Of all three four leads, it is Mason and Lorre who steal the show.
Unfortunately, the film takes its slow time in revealing the thrust of the story; namely, that Captain Nemo was once enslaved on a penal colony and is now seeking revenge against the “hated nation” that persecuted him and was responsible for the death of his family. He’s learned to love life underneath the sea, finding it a palatable alternative to man’s humanity to man on the surface. Problem is: Nemo has become so filled with bitterness and hatred that he doesn’t realize that he’s not all that different from the warmongers he so dramatically opposes.
But it’s not really the slow moving and predictable plot that makes 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea an enjoyable moving watching experience. Instead, it’s the spectacle of it all. This is a movie in which special effects really are indeed quite special. Case in point is the famous sequence in which Ned Land (Douglas) battles a giant squid. As a Disney film, there are naturally some family friendly moments, such as when Ned sings a seafaring ditty, “A Whale of a Tale,” and a few lighthearted moments with a seal.
All told, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea is a work of movie magic, one that I am sure is a completely different experience watched in a theater.
MATT & BONNIE TAYLOR – Neon Flamingo. Dodd Mean, hardcover, 1987. St. Martin’s, paperback, June 1990.
This is the first in the series of three Palmer Kingston novels. I posted Barry Gardner’s review of the third, Neon Dancers, a couple of weeks ago. He liked it well enough that when I had the chance to read this one, I couldn’t turn it down.
To save myself of thinking up the same words to describe the two main series characters, both newspaper reporters, I’ve decided to use Barry’s instead: “Kingston is something of an eccentric, living in a garish mansion surrounded by neon signs and antique cars. [His lover and rival, A. J.] Egan is a tenant in the mansion. If it all sounds a little strange, well, it is.”
This novel chronicles the first time they met, with A. J. moving in and their working on the same case together, but from opposite sides of the fence, working as they do for two directly competing newspapers.
They make for a compatible if somewhat lightweight couple who somehow drift into sharing the same bed, on occasion, but I didn’t find the case they’re working on to be of much interest. The killing of a retired police captain seems to Palmer to be directly connected to a kidnapping that took place some 20 years when he was the new kid in town. I didn’t make the same jump in logic as quickly as he did. I found myself continually playing catch-up and never feeling as filled in as I thought I should.
Most of the characters are only there. None stand out, not even the two leading ones. The book’s not bad, the setting is fine — a mid-sized town on the Florida coast — but the story is weak, and it’s tough to get over that. All in all, it’s a book that could have been a whole lot better.
STUART WOODS – Santa Fe Rules. Harper Collins, hardcover, 1992. Harper Torch, paperback, 1993.
A lot of people, including a number whose judgement I respect, really like Woods’ books. I’ve thought them good to so-so, but have never been a raving fan.
In this one, producer Wolf Willett leaves Santa Fe for LA one morning in his plane, and has to land at Grand Canyon with electrical problems. While there he reads a newspaper account of bis, his wife’s, and his director’s deaths at his home in Santa Fe, by shotgun. Naturally, this gives him somewhat of a turn.
The situation is acerbated by the fact that he has completely lost a day, and can’t remember the night of the last day he remembers. What to do, what to do. Well, that’s what it’s all about, innit?
Smoothly and slickly written, and entertaining enough. Standard best-seller stuff.
— Reprinted from Fireman, Fireman, Save My Books #4, November 1992.
Bibliographic Update: A synopsis of this book I found online says: “Learning that his wife and partner have died suspiciously while he was away, successful Hollywood producer Wolf Willett returns home and hires ace criminal defense lawyer Ed Eagle to clear his name of the murder charge.” I then discovered that Ed Eagle has appeared in three more books by Woods, all between 2006 and 2010, making him a series character that of course Barry could not know about or foresee.
ULRIC DAUBENY “The Sumach.” First appeared in The Elemental: Tales of the Supernormal and the Inexplicable (George Routledge & Sons, 1919; Ash-Tree Press, August 2006, out of print). Story online here.
Ulric Daubeny (1888-1922), a British scholar of church architecture, published one original volume of supernatural fiction. Entitled The Elemental (1919), the volume isn’t particularly easy to come by these days. After reading “The Sumach,” I can attest that that’s probably something that should be rectified. I had an opportunity to read this particular Daubeny short story in the recently published anthology, The Rivals of Dracula (No Exit Press, 2015).
Although this work of weird fiction isn’t in the same league as say Arthur Conan Doyle or H.P. Lovecraft’s output, it’s certainly on par with the short fiction penned by other somewhat contemporaneous writers in the supernatural genre, authors such as Frank Belknap Long and E. Hoffmann Price, both of whom wrote for Weird Tales.
“The Sumach” is notable for two reasons. First, it is the tale’s reliance on two female protagonists and the concomitant lack of a male character central to the outcome of the story that makes it a bit unique. Second, and more importantly, Daubeny’s “The Sumach” successfully merges the weird biological/plant story with that of the vampire tale. Indeed, the eponymous sumach, as presented in the story, is both an artifact of nature and an agent of the supernatural. It is, for the lack of a better term, a vampire plant.
With a premise as uncanny such as this, it’s notable that Daubeny is able to weave a tale that never descends into camp or parody. “The Sumach” remains a story in which a woman, in her quest to solve the mystery of her cousin’s tragic demise, comes face to face with a plant that has taken on the characteristics of a vampire that once haunted the English countryside.
THEY MET IN THE DARK. General Films, UK, 1943. James Mason, Joyce Howard, Tom Walls, Phyllis Stanley, Edward Rigby, Ronald Ward, David Farrar, Karel Stepanek, Patricia Medina. Based on the novel The Vanished Corpse, by Anthony Gilbert (US title: She Vanished in the Dawn). Director: Carl Lamac.
A very minor wartime British spy film cum murder mystery that has only a couple of points worthy of notice, in my opinion. The first is that it is based on an Arthur Crook detective novel by Anthony Gilbert, Crook being a low-life London lawyer who had over 50 recorded adventures from the good lady’s pen (or typewriter, as the case may be).
There is no Mr. Crook in the movie, though, and even though I’m not sure where he would have fit in, I’d have liked to have seen who they might have picked to play him. It wouldn’t have been the utterly handsome but oh so brooding James Mason — the second reason for you to see this movie, should you ever have the opportunity.
In the film Mason plays a Royal Navy commander who is given his walking papers after allowing the Nazis to blow up a ship under his watch. Knowing he has been given faked orders, he tracks down a manicurist who may have switched them on him first to a bar then to an old deserted house which (of course) is not really deserted. From another direction comes Laura Verity (Joyce Howard) who expects to find her uncles living there but instead finds the manicurist’s dead body.
Which quickly enough disappears à la the title of Anthony Gilbert’s novel. She suspects the commander, and to clear her name from providing the police false information, she decides to solve the case. He, of course, wishes to clear his name from more serious charges and is constantly annoyed to find the girl’s path continually crossing and interfering with his.
Which means, of course, they soon find themselves falling in love, all the while eluding the Navy, a gang of Nazi spies, an oh-so-British police inspector, all against a backdrop of a music hall complete with many songs and a harmonica player who is… Well, I shouldn’t tell you, should I?
The story’s rather a sorry mess, but the two leading players make it fun. Minor league fun, but still fun. But if James Mason hadn’t been in it, it never would have turned up again years later, in of all things, a DVD boxed set of British noir films. But noir? Not on your life.
Jack Norton starts out the story as a hot jazz piano player in New Orleans, and in the first few chapters he gets mixed up with gangsters and a shady lady, commits a murder, is framed for a murder he didn’t do, and gets shot up and left for dead in a swamp.
This sort of thing is so common as to go unnoticed in paperbacks, but Vining writes in a fervid, emotionally charged style reminiscent of Woolrich, Goodis or Jim Thompson, and the opening chapters create a sensation of genuine unease.
Later on, Norton crawls out of the swamp, bums his way to Mobile where he gets work as a laborer, and eventually ends up working as a handyman/watchman at a modest nightclub on Florida’s Gulf Coast, where he strikes up a relationship with the beautiful owner… only to find his old gangster associates have moved into the area. And not only that, but there’s also a mystery player in the game, trying to kill him for reasons all his own.
The writing in these later chapters settles down to something on the order of John D. MacDonald or Dan J. Marlowe – still not a bad thing — full of the pungent detail of all that Manly stuff: dock-walloping, fist-fights, construction work, babes and bad guys, all evoked with the kind of easy-reading economy you just don’t see any more. The Mystery Figure is fairly obvious; in fact you can see him coming like the Macy’s Parade, but that doesn’t spoil the pleasure of a fast-moving, well-done read that I probably won’t remember by next week.
Keith Vining writes like someone who’s been around the pulps and paperbacks, and he made history of sorts with Too Hot for Hell — the first Ace Double. But that book and this one are all I can find out about a writer who shoulda been a contender….
I came across Peter Cheyney when I was somewhere between twelve and thirteen. A church bazaar or second hand bookshop, the memory is blurred. What remains clear is that being basically stupid and already with the propensity to read what I wanted to read, I assumed at first the book was a western ‘Peter Cheyenne’ being some kind of cowboy. When it became clear that it wasn’t a western, I put the book down convinced Peter Cheyenne was an American thriller writer.
I forgot all about him (well almost, the name having some kind of magic) for almost forty years. And this ‘forgetting’ is key to the whole story. Peter Cheyney was the most popular and prolific British author of his day. He was also the most highly paid. His curse perhaps is that he undoubtedly influenced Ian Fleming, for Bond is nothing more than a glamorous composite of the Cheyney ‘hero’. Cheyney created the template that Fleming developed, and the rest is history. Bond got Chubby Broccoli and celluloid fame, Peter Cheyney obscurity and critical censure.
John le Carre, when asked about spy books that might have influenced him as a child, gave the following response. He duly bowed his head to Kipling, Conrad, Buchan and Greene, and then referred to the: ‘…awful, mercifully-forgotten chauvinistic writers like Peter Cheyney and Co.’
John Sutherland made a similar point, referring to Cheyney’s Dark Series as the ‘high point of a resolutely low flying career.’ These two, wonderfully pithy, assessments are true to a point. They are also skewed by the cultural background and literary talent of both men.
Cheyney was chauvinistic, and no great shakes in terms of vocabulary and style, but he shouldn’t be forgotten ‘mercifully’ or otherwise. Cheyney’s success as the most highly paid writer of his time does not necessarily qualify him as a literary giant, but it does show that his work reflected the attitudes and mood of a huge swathe of the population, amplified it and played it back to them. Cheyney talked to the popular mood rather than the concerns of an educated elite. It was ‘everyman’ who bought his work in droves.
During the dark years of World War II and the austerity that followed, Cheyney’s novels were taken into battlefields, were exchanged for ten cigarettes in POW camps, and at a time when fabric was rationed, women fantasised about the glamorous Cheyney femme fatales in their satin and silks, sheer stockings, ruffles and bows. Read Cheyney and you’re reading violence and brutality set in a fashion catalogue.
For those jaded by pilgrimages to Baker Street, Cheyney provides a welcome alternative. Most of his many heroes, villains and victims live in a very small area of London. Some are unwitting neighbours, and all jostle each other on the same roads and streets, ghosts in parallel worlds. These are mapped, allowing the reader to go on his or her own ‘Cheyney walk.’
Cheyney, Behave recaptures a lost world and provides an eye-opening analysis of a popular culture we might prefer to forget. The book examines the importance of cigarettes and alcohol in Cheyney’s world, his attitude to ‘pansies’, racism, women, and the unconscious but jaw-dropping sexism of his age. It analyses the significance of Cheyney’s ‘Dark’ series in terms of war propaganda and how Cheyney accurately captured the effects of war on prevailing morality.
In his books you will find misogyny, homophobia, racism, sexism and chauvinism and, at their core, idealism and a deep vulnerability. In terms of market forces they reflect a world long past, one far different from ours but fascinating and worth understanding. Read Cheyney, Behave and judge for yourself.