June 2016


STOP ME BEFORE I KILL! Falcon/Hammer Films, UK, 1960, as The Full Treatment. Columbia Pictures, US, 1961. Claude Dauphin, Diane Cilento, Ronald Lewis, Françoise Rosay. Screenplay: Val Guest and Ronald Scott Thorn, based on the latter’s novel The Full Treatment. Director: Val Guest.

   There is a quite a bit that may be of interest to regular readers of this blog in this film, recently released as one of a box set of non-horror Hammer films. The cinematography by Gilbert Taylor is clear and crisp, in stunning black-and-white, and the performances by all are as top notch as the script will allow them to be, especially that of leading lady Diane Cilento.

   She plays the wife of a race car driver (Alan Colby, played by Ronald Lewis) who was in an auto accident on an ordinary highway while the two of them were on their honeymoon together. He’s recovered but is having (apparently) trouble in bed with her. While in France, then back to England, they call on the services of a psychiatrist named Prade (Claude Dauphin).

   The problem is more than a mere sexual dysfunction, however, and here’s where that rather title of the film comes in. What Colby also has to fight is a compulsion to kill his wife, mostly by strangulation, either manually or with whatever wire in the kitchen is handy. They also live in an apartment with, for no other apparent reason, a set of old surgical tools.

   Commenters on IMDb, some of them, have complained about the length of the movie, and suggest that it should have been shorter in order to maintain the level of suspense the producer and director of the film intended it to have. They, the commenters, are right, but the US version, the one I’ve just watched, is already missing 15 minutes from its original two hour length in the UK.

   And what’s worse, one key scene is missing, one referred to later as the shower scene, in which (apparently) the newly married couple try to make love, and can’t. The next scene, also crucial to the movie, takes place at a dinner party being held by Prade, where Colby takes serious offense at several of Prade’s jabbing and jesting remarks.

   Strangely, though, a scene in which Diane Cilento’s character is seen swimming in the nude is left intact, but filmed discreetly at a distance so as not to bother (?) the censors.

   But the major problem is that, even by cutting the film (or script) down to size, there is no real suspense. Everything is well foreshadowed in advance (is that redundant?), and the viewer’s only obligation is to fit all the pieces together as they occur into the ending that is already well established ahead of time.

SELECTED BY JONATHAN LEWIS:


GASTON LEROUX “The Woman with the Velvet Collar.” First published in English in Weird Tales, October 1929. Reprinted in Startling Mystery Stories, Spring 1969, and in several anthologies of weird fiction since. Originally published in French as “La femme au collier de velours” in 1924.

   Although it took me a while to become fully immersed in Gaston Leroux’s “The Woman With the Velvet Collar,” by the story’s end I was left with the indelible impression that I had just read a well-crafted horror tale. First appearing in English translation in Weird Tales, Leroux’s conte cruel transports the reader to Corsica, a land known for its vendettas and its cultural and physical separateness from mainland France.

   “The Woman With the Velvet Collar” unfolds with a discussion between two sailors, a sea captain named Gobert and his friend, Michel. The two men are discussing Corsican vendetta stories, with Gobert assuring Michel that he has a story that is far more horrifying than any run of the mill vendetta. The tale further unfolds as Gobert begins to tell a story within a story, about his experiences in Corsica in which he encountered a ghost like woman dressed all in black and with a black velvet ribbon around her neck.

   As it turns out, the woman was named Angeluccia and she was married to a local Corsican official. But she kept a secret from her husband! She was secretly romantically involved with her cousin, one of her husband’s employees. Without giving too much of the plot away, let’s just say that the guillotine makes a bloody appearance in this fiendishly clever tale about what happens when a costume party in which Angeluccia dresses up as Marie Antoinette turns into the beginning of a dark foray into the supernatural.

Bibliographic Note:   Captain Michel also appeared in three additional stories:

       Le noël du petit Vincent-Vincent (1924); The Crime on Christmas Night (1930).
       Not’ Olympe (1924); The Mystery of the Four Husbands (1929).
       L’auberge épouvantable (1925); The Inn of Terror (1929).

THE BACKWARD REVIEWER
William F. Deeck


ELIZABETH CADELL – Shadows on the Water. William Morrow, hardcover, 1958. First published in the UK by Hodder & Stoughton, hardcover, 1958, as Shadow on the Water by Harriet Ainsworth.

   Kate Verney, widow, is sailing to South America to become acquainted with her new grandson and maybe to save him from being christened Theobald. Her roommate on the ship is Lindy Barron, who along with her brother, Rex, is going to Lisbon to live with her father, William Barron, an arrogant, physically attractive businessman with a weakness for females.

   Upon arrival at Lisbon, the group discovers that Barron is missing, presumed dead after the horse he was riding fell off a cliff. Later Barron turns up, saying that someone had stretched a wire across his favorite riding path. Other attempts are made on his life.

   Since Kate’s passport is stolen while she is ashore at Lisbon, she cannot continue her voyage. Which is a good thing, for someone has to keep an eye on the Barron children’s welfare — and William Barron’s, despite his protests.

   Though disappointing to me because it did not have the engaging humor of Cadell’s The Corner Shop, this book is nonetheless a good example of the romantic-suspense novel, featuring a heroine a little longer in the tooth than usual. Cadell’s goal is merely to entertain, and she is for the most part successful.

— Reprinted from MYSTERY READERS JOURNAL, Vol. 6, No. 2, Summer 1990, “Vacation for Murder.”


This is singer-songwriter Paul Siebel singing perhaps his most famous song, also covered by many other artists, including Linda Ronstadt, Leo Kottke and Bonnie Raitt:

Reviewed by JONATHAN LEWIS:


SKI TROOP ATTACK. The Filmgroup, 1960. Michael Forest, Frank Wolff, Wally Campo, Richard Sinatra, James Hoffman. Screenwriter: Charles B. Griffith. Director: Roger Corman.

   What’s better: a bloated high budget war film that reaches for aesthetic and narrative greatness, but completely misses the mark or a decidedly downscale production that doesn’t aspire for greatness, but provides the viewer with a decent enough story and some well choreographed combat sequences?

   I ask because the latter is how I’d describe Roger Corman’s Ski Troop Attack, a movie that is by no means an outstanding combat film, but one, thanks to screenwriter Charles B. Griffith, with just enough realistic sounding dialogue to make it a perfectly watchable low budget charmer.

   Filmed in South Dakota over the course of ten days, Ski Troop Attack follows the exploits of a group of American soldiers behind enemy lines in snowbound Nazi Germany.

   On skis, the men scout out the area and eventually make their way to a railroad bridge that they intend to destroy. Leading the group is the by the book (of course!) Lt. Factor (Michael Forest) who repeatedly clashes with the hot headed Sgt. Potter (a nearly perfectly cast Frank Wolff).

   Joining them for the mission are the Southern good old boy Pvt. Herman Grammelsbacher (Richard Sinatra) and the ethnic Yankee Pvt. Ed Ciccola (Wally Campo). There’s tension among the men, of course, but none of it rises to the level of actual deep animosity. It’s more of a friendly sort, exacerbated by wartime. In some sense, what makes Ski Troop Attack watchable is that it is at its core a buddy film.

   That said, the film is unmistakably low budget, with no big special effects or gigantic set pieces. But at a running time just shy of 70 minutes, the film nevertheless sort of works as it was surely intended: as temporary escapism. Look for scene in which a completely incongruous jazz score by Fred Katz plays in the background as three of the American soldiers line the railway bridge with explosives. It’s so creatively bizarre that it actually makes this quirky film more valuable to posterity than it naturally had any right to be.

Lighthouse was a pop rock big band from Canada with often up to 13 members. “One Fine Morning” was the title track of their first album, released in 1971.

REVIEWED BY DAVID VINEYARD:


JOHN BUCHAN – The Man From the Norlands. Houghton Mifflin, US, hardcover, 1936. First published in the UK as Island of Sheep by Hodder & Stoughton, hardcover, 1936. Reprinted many times since.

   This is the last of the five books in the Richard Hannay series that began with The Thirty Nine Steps, Greenmantle, Mr. Standfast, The Third Hostage and this, with many of the characters save for Hannay appearing in The Courts of the Morning, which figures in this book. It comes relatively late in author John Buchan’s career. Only a few more novels would follow it, but in it he shows no loss of the skills that made him the master of the thriller/adventure novel or ‘shocker’ as he preferred to call them.

   I have written about Buchan extensively in an earlier review of The Three Hostages for anyone interested in his extraordinary life of service and creativity. Here I’ll settle on discussing the final adventure of his creation Richard Hannay.

   It opens with Sir Richard Hannay, who we have not seen since the events in The Three Hostages, living in retirement on his estate, Fosse, with his wife Mary and fourteen year old son Peter John. Though the bond between father and son is strong, Peter John remains a bit of a mystery to the robust somewhat unimaginative elder Hannay (he was never meant for any kind of schoolboy, for talk about ‘playing the game’ and the ‘team spirit’ and ‘the honour of the old House’ simply made him sick), and a good deal of the novel deals with coming of age and relations between fathers and sons, real and surrogate. It also deals with a theme never far from Buchan’s mind, or that of anyone brought up in the late Victorian age and coming of age in the Edwardian period, the subject of atavism.

   Much of the best popular literature of the Victorian/Edwardian era deals with the atavistic urge whether it be Stevenson’s physically schizophrenic doctor and his ape-like unconscious, Doyle’s demon hound, Stoker’s vampire count, Burrough’s savage Ape Man, or Rider Haggard’s embodiment of the anima, Ayesha. Here, the hold the past has on one man under siege is part and parcel of the story.

   The man from the Norlands, or Northlands, meaning Denmark in this book, is Mr.James Smith, a slightly foreign gentleman with very good English who is staying nearby and has a certain air about him (he was a hunted man, in desperate terror of some pursuer and lying very low). It is Sandy Clanroyden, Lord Clanroyden, Hannay’s old pal and fellow adventurer (Greenmantle on, and hero of The Courts of the Morning), who is Buchan’s stand in for T. E. Lawrence and Aubrey Herbert, who first clues him to Smith’s identity recalling a man they both knew earlier, a Danish adventurer named Marius Haraldson. Then from another friend who also knew Haraldson in the adventurous old days in Africa, Lombard, he learns of Haraldson’s son, Valdemar, and his danger.

    ‘This chap came to my office, and he told me a dashed silly story. Oh, a regular blood-and-thunder yarn of how he was in an awful mess, with a lot of crooks out gunning for him. I didn’t follow him very clearly … But the gist of it was that he was in deadly danger, and that his enemies would get him unless he found the right kind of friends. .. I jotted down one or two names he mentioned, the names of the people he was afraid of.’ … ‘Troth,’ he read, ‘Lancelot Troth. And a name which may be Albius or Albion—I didn’t ask him to spell it. Oh, and Barralty — you know, the company-promoter that came down in the Lepcha goldfield business.’”

   The names are familiar enough to Hannay, but Troth died at the hands of his old friend Peter Pienarr back in South Africa, and the names are those from the older Haraldson’s days in South Africa. The miscreant in this case in Troth’s son, a crooked solicitor, with “an eye like a gunman” who has been making vague threats against Haraldson tryin to blackmail him over some claim against his father Troth claims his father had. When Hannay finally meets Haraldson and learns he is Smith he hears the whole story about the Island of Sheep where old Haraldson made his home, and the viable threat Troth, Albius, and Barralty pose to the fortune Haraldson made in Africa and Asia and the mysterious treasure which they covet:

   They visited the Island of Sheep — this was the name of Valdemar’s place — and, when they found it empty, pretty well ransacked the house, just like so many pirates from the sea. But they did no mischief, for they were playing a bigger game.

   Hannay was pledged to help the older Haraldson and debts run deep. After checking in with Macgillvary of the Yard for a run down on Troth and Barralty, and a warning he’s too old for this sort of adventuring, he hides Haraldson out at Fosse, his estate where Peter John is missing a term of school after having his appendix out.

   Haraldsen and Peter John become friends, but then while Sandy Clanroyden comes to visit they discover they are being watched, and Clanroyden spots a man he knows, Jacques D’Ingraville, a French ace who was involved in the action of The Courts of the Morning, as a mercenary in a Latin American revolution in the fictional country of Olfia. It’s a significant lot of villains Haraldson is facing, and D’Ingraville is the worst of them.

   Following Sandy’s advice they decamp Fosse for the wilds of Scotland and Sandy Clanroyden’s estate there, Laverlaw, where they add Haraldson’s thirteen year old daughter, Anna, to the group to be safe after a near miss. Sandy then explains the stakes to them:

   D’Ingraville is the leader now, and the rest must follow, whether they like it or not. He won’t loosen his grip on either his opponents or his allies. He’s the real enemy. My old great-great-great-grandfather at Dettingen led his regiment into action after telling them, “Ye see those lads on yon hill? Well, if ye dinna kill them, they’ll kill you.” That’s what I say about D’Ingraville.’

   The action now switches to Haraldson’s Island of Sheep, where Sandy’s bloody plan is set in motion, to let D’Ingraville and his bloody handed band come to them and end the threat to Haraldson and his daughter once and for all, and as Sandy says of his personal debt with the Frenchman, ‘I’m going to join him on your island, and I think that one or the other of us won’t leave it.’

   Now with the issue clear at hand the siege begins. Peter John and Anna will prove their mettle on their own and bring a much needed rescue with them, and I think the handling of Anna disproves the old line that Buchan could not write women, Haraldson will reclaim his Nordic heritage turned from timid scholar to berserker believing his daughter lost, and a good bloody time is had by all in the rousing finish which again emphasizes the atavistic theme of the book with the arrival of the rescue led by Peter John and Anna, the ancient Viking Grind, as the fishermen are known who once came to the Island of Sheep to pay tribute to the Haraldson family.

   It was as if a legion of trolls had suddenly sprung out of the earth, for these men were outside all my notions of humanity … Dimly I saw D’Ingraville’s men below me cast one look at the murderous invasion and then break wildly for the shore. I didn’t blame them. The sight of that maniacal horde had frozen my very marrow.

   If Man from the Norlands is not the classic the earlier Hannay books are it is still a rousing adventure thriller filled with incident and Buchan’s glorious way of describing weather. action, chase, and the wilds. The suspense is steady, the odds high, and the chances desperate, and that is all you can ask of any thriller. It provides a splendid final outing for Hannay, and it is only a shame we never get to see Peter John in action on his own in later books. The American edition of the book even had a dust wrapper by the magnificent N. C. Wyeth.

   Of course the attitudes of the book are dated, and though Buchan is much less given to that sort of nonsense than the other Clubland writers, H. C. ‘Sapper’ McNeile and Dornford Yates being the primary ones, it still must be faced. There is ample evidence Buchan recanted many of his own earlier statements, and he did revise his works late in life, but he is too good a writer to have his characters speak falsely, and Hannay is, after all, a rough colonial South African. And, like all Buchan novels you may want to soak in a warm tub and relax when you finish, because Buchan is the most exhausting of adventure writers seldom pausing in the relentless movement and incident to let you breathe.

   But the father of the modern spy novel here lets out all the stops in a first rate adventure with just the right mix of mystery, suspense, and action. The opening may be a bit slow for readers not used to storytelling from the past, but once Buchan hooks you his hold is powerful. The mystery of the treasure also has a satisfying irony to it for both villains and heroes. Few series characters make their final bow in a book this good, and the climax when Haraldson reclaims his Viking heritage is blood and thunder at its most glorious and a prime example of Buchan’s gifts as a storyteller par excellence. It is also an elegaic work in that there hangs over it a sense from Buchan and from the character of Richard Hannay that this is the end of an era, the last of the great adventures.

   As Lombard, a character who was pledged to the elder Haraldson, but had settled into a soft life and was drawn by Hannay back into a life of adventure, says late in the book: ‘The Norlands are a spiritual place which you won’t find on any map. Every man must discover his own Island of Sheep. You and Clanroyden have found yours, and I’m going to find mine.’

   Buchan, the man and writer always sought his own Island of Sheep, and in a sense found it in duty and not peace. It is a theme he returns to in his next to last book, the even more elegaic Edward Leithen adventure Sick Heart River, and which dates back to his political novel Lodge in the Wilderness. It is fitting that in their last adventure Richard Hannay and Sandy Clanroyden have finally found their Island of Sheep. It is fine place to say goodbye to them.

SELECTED BY JONATHAN LEWIS:


  ARTHUR CONAN DOYLE “The New Catacomb.” First published in The “Sunlight” Year-Book (1898) as “Burger’s Secret.” First collected in Tales of Terror and Mystery (John Murray, UK, hardcover, 1922) and in the US in The Black Doctor and Other Tales of Terror and Mystery (George H. Doran Co., 1925).

   Admirers of the young Tennessee Williams’ Weird Tales story, “The Vengeance of Nitocris” will find much to appreciate in Arthur Conan Doyle’s conte cruel, “The New Catacomb.” Much as in the former story, it won’t take long for a discerning reader to figure out how the story is likely going to end. Doyle’s punchy, if not overly imaginative, non-supernatural horror story, is a tale in which the quest for archaeological knowledge, a love triangle, and a man’s quest for revenge all play prominent roles and can only really lead to one particular horrifying conclusion.

   The story unfolds in an apartment in Rome in which two students, Kennedy (an Englishman) and Burger (of mixed German and Italian parentage), are discussing their love for archaeology. Kennedy soon discovers that Burger has uncovered a hitherto unexplored ancient catacomb and is eager to learn all about it.

   His zeal for knowledge, however, comes at a price. Burger insists that Kennedy disclose to him the details of a sordid relationship the Englishman had with one Miss Mary Saunderson.

   Why does Burger want to know these scandalous details of Kennedy’s love life and what’s the relationship between this aching desire to know and Burger’s archaeological find? As it turns out, all questions will be answered in the dark recesses of a Roman catacomb, a territory in which both Kennedy and Burger will enter together, but from which only one will return to the surface above.

CALLING DR. DEATH. Universal Pictures, 1943. Lon Chaney [Jr.], Patricia Morison, J. Carrol Naish, David Bruce, Ramsay Ames, Fay Helm. Director: Reginald Le Borg.

   This is the first in a series of six films based on the very popular 1940s radio program, Inner Sanctum Mystery, all of them starring Lon Chaney, Jr. Unfortunately it’s a perfectly ordinary murder mystery, with none of macabre overtones that I remember of the radio series.

   I’m also not sure that Lon Chaney was the right person to cast as the star of all six — not based on his role in this one. Can you see Lon Chaney as a noted neurologist who uses hypnotism as one of ways he helps his patients? I tried and I just couldn’t do it, no matter how nicely he talked, softly and eloquently and dressed up in a suit.

   As far as the story is concerned, it turns out that even noted neurologists can have marital problems, and when his errant wife turns up dead, he’s an obvious suspect. His alibi? He has none. What’s worse, he has a total blackout for the time of her death. Although another man, his wife’s lover, is accused of the crime, he is hounded by a dogged police inspector (J. Carrol Naish), who does not believe the official version of the case.

   What can Dr. Steele do but find the real murderer himself, aided by his lovely assistant (Patricia Morison)? Don’t forget that Dr. Steele is a master hypnotist. Can he hypnotize himself? Well, of course he can.

   The problem is not the relatively hokey plot. It’s the fact the real killer is obvious from reel one onward. No surprise ending for this one, alas. I’ve always been a big fan of the radio series, since I was eight years old, but this first film I found disappointing.

Reviewed by JONATHAN LEWIS:


SKYJACKED. MGM, 1972. Charlton Heston, Yvette Mimieux, James Brolin, Claude Akins, Jeanne Crain, Susan Dey, Roosevelt Grier, Mariette Hartley, Walter Pidgeon, Ken Swofford, Leslie Uggams. Based on the novel Hijacked by David Harper. Director: John Guillermin.

   Sometimes films with all-star casts, no matter how stellar, end up falling a bit flat. That’s the case with Skyjacked, a Hollywood disaster film about a deranged American soldier (James Brolin) suffering from post-traumatic stress who hijacks an American airliner.

   That’s not to say that there aren’t some genuinely tense moments in the movie, or that Charlton Heston doesn’t give a solid, eminently believable performance as the airplane’s captain. It’s just that, despite the presence of veteran actors and actresses such as Brolin, Yvette Mimieux, Walter Pidgeon, and Claude Akins, the whole production ends up feeling rather languid, as if all the characters were going through the motions, behaving in the most stereotypical manner possible. (See, for instance, the pregnant woman who goes into labor mid-hijacking, and the laid back African-American jazz musician who ends up seated next to the overwrought hijacker).

   From what I can tell, however, Skyjacked was the first major Hollywood production where an airline hijacking was central to the plot. In that sense, the movie was the template for things to come. Unfortunately, it’s now all but impossible to watch this John Guillermin-directed work without one’s mind drifting and thinking about Airplane (1980), the Paramount comedy that successfully mocked and played homage to the numerous airline disaster movies such as this one that Hollywood churned out during the 1970s.

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