JOHN DICKSON CARR – The Case of the Constant Suicides. Harper & Row, US, hardcover, 1941. H. Hamilton, UK, hardcover, 1941. Paperback reprints include: Dell #91, mapback, n.d. ; Berkley #G-60, 1957; Collier, 1963; Perennial, 1989.
Both author John Dickson Carr and leading character Dr. Gideon Fell are in fine form in this one, what with two locked room deaths and very nearly a third. As it turns out the first is a suicide that masquerades as a murder (a disputed fact that is of utmost importance to both the dead man’s attorney and his insurance agent, as well as the surviving relatives). In a second instance, a repeat of the first, the victim survives but barely, and the third is a case of murder very cleverly disguised at a suicide.
The scene is Scotland, a location (and language) that Carr has a lot of fun with, as well as with two distant cousins who are feuding academics who tumble across each other in a blacked-out train on the trip northward to the dead man’s small fortress of a castle. He had earlier been found dead after falling out of his bedroom located in a high turret, with the room itself solidly bolted on the inside.
Carr’s penchant for broad humor is on full display throughout, and of course one fair lass is referred to as a “wench,” but I guarantee you that there’s no way he ignores the puzzle aspect of the case, one which seems to have Dr. Fell perplexed a little more than usual — and if he doesn’t seem to have the answers right away, then pity the poor reader.
Between you and me, though, while all the clues are there, the solution to the matter seems a little more forced than the best of Carr’s works. But as any fan of the author knows full well, a little less than his best is better than 98% of what the competition has to offer.
STEPHEN BECKER – The Chinese Bandit. Random House, hardcover, 1975. Berkley, paperback, 1977.
Stephen Becker is one of the few Americans who can write the novel of suspense and high adventure as well as, if not better than, his counterparts in Great Britain. The Chinese Bandit is the first of an outstanding trilogy about the postwar years in the Far East (the other two titles are The Last Mandarin, 1979, and The Blue-Eyed Shan, 1982, and is so good that it earned Becker accolades as “a modern Dumas.”
The bandit of the title is Jake Dodds, a brawling, wenching, semi-alcoholic marine sergeant, wartime hero, and peacetime bum who finds himself in Peking in 1947 and becomes involved with a wily Chinese black-marketeer named Kao. After Jake nearly kills an American brigadier general in a whorehouse fight, it is Kao who saves him from imprisonment by arranging to smuggle him out of Peking with a camel caravan. Working as a guard and camel-puller, Jake soon finds himself dealing with progression of traders, nomads, guerrillas, warlords, Japanese deserters, Chinese Communists, Chinese Nationalists, and women good and bad. Not to mention the Gobi Desert, the great snow-capped mountains of Central Asia, and even the legendary yeti or Abominable Snowman.
Byzantine plot twists, well-drawn characters, and one of the most graphically detailed of all fictional portraits of postwar China, Mongolia, and Turkestan make this escapist entertainment of the finest sort. But it is even more than that, for Becker writes beautifully and incisively from firsthand knowledge of time and place, giving us keen social and political observations and a work of genuine literary distinction. This is a novel to be read slowly, to be savored, and then to be read again — as are the other two tities in his trilogy.
Becker has also written two contemporary tales suspense and adventure: A Covenant with Death (1964) and Season of the Stranger (1966). Under the pseudonym of Steve Dodge, he produced a paperback original with a China setting, Shanghai Incident (1955), which was later reissued under his own name. All of these are good, but none is as rich or as memorable as the three later works.
HORROR HOTEL. Trans-Lux, US, 1962. First released by Vulcan Films, UK, 1960, as The City of the Dead. Christopher Lee, Patricia Jessel, Betta St. John, Venetia Stevenson, Dennis Lotis, Valentine Dyall. Written by George Baxt and Milton Subotsky. Directed by John Moxey.
You really need to see this.
Expertly done on a small budget, Horror Hotel opens in the 1600s colonial village of Whitewood, Massachusetts, with a witch (Patricia Jessel) being burned at the stake, calling down a curse on the place as her lover (Valentine Dyall) looks on. Jump cut about 300 years and we’re in a college classroom where Professor Driscoll (Christopher Lee) passionately relates the episode to a room of rather superannuated students. Some scoff, but pretty coed Nan Barlow (Venetia Stevenson) asks to do further research, and the eager-to-help pedagogue suggests with a sly look in his eye that she try poking around in an out-of-the way village… called Whitewood.
Nan’s boyfriend (Tom Naylor) and brother (Dennis Lotis) pooh-pooh the idea, but in no time she’s driving through dense, forbidding fog to the remote hamlet, pausing only to pick up a mysterious hitchhiker (Valentine Dyall again) before she arrives at the blighted hamlet, finds a rather dank and forbidding Inn, meets the landlady (Patricia Jessel again!) and sinister things start happening, slowly at first, but quickly building up to a grand and nasty finale.
Cinematographer Desmond Dickenson, whose credits include Laurence Olivier’s Hamletand Michael Gough’sKonga, fills the screen with memorable creepiness; low-lying mist covers the ground and obscures the buildings, hiding the cheap sets wonderfully, and the camera shifts to odd angles at times, never arty but constantly surprising.
The players put earnest effort into their parts, even the stock types. Ms. Jessel evokes the spirit of Judith Anderson effectively, with maybe a touch of Barbara Stanwyck. Christopher Lee is a shade too patently fanatic as the sinister professor, but I saw a lot worse back in my college days. And Betta St. John does a wonderful horror-movie heroine, perky and terrified in equal measure.
The plot unspools quickly, with a few clever twists, and if Horror Hotel never hits the Classic mark, it doesn’t miss it by much. In all, a pleasantly terrifying way to spend an October evening.
Television is a visual medium, something that can limit the horror story. Too much visual horror can offend the viewer and not enough can disappoint the viewer. In the early days of television the amount of graphic violence and gore was limited for TV’s large mass audience. But as times and culture has changed the horror genre has reflected those changes.
In the ROUTE 66 episode “Lizard’s Leg & Owlet’s Wings” Peter Lorre, Boris Karloff and Lon Chaney Jr. wonder if there is a future for the old style monsters.
ROUTE 66 (CBS, 1960-64): Created by Stirling Silliphant and Herbert B. Leonard. CAST: George Maharis as Buz and Martin Milner as Tod.
The series followed the adventures of two men in a Chevrolet as they traveled across country.
“Lizard’s Leg and Owlet’s Wing” (October 26, 1962) Written by Stirling Silliphant. Directed by Robert Gist. GUEST CAST: Boris Karloff, Peter Lorre and Lon Chaney. Buz and Tod get jobs at the Chicago O’Hare Inn where they help groups set up their conventions or meetings. Buz’s first assignment is to take care of fifty young beautiful secretaries while Tod gets stuck with Karloff, Lorre and Chaney who are planning to start a film production company. The three famous horror actors argue over whether to produced movies with new monsters or stay with the classics.
Silliphant’s script examined the power of fear and love, but suffers from dated characters. Silliphant does have one of the women in charge complaining about men getting better pay than women, but he also had the women faint at the sight of Lon Chaney in a werewolf costume.
A popular form of horror on television has always been the supernatural story, not only in America but in England as well. Englishman M. R. James (August 1, 1862 – June 12, 1936) is considered one of the greatest writers of ghost stories.
OMNIBUS (BBC, 1967-2003) was a popular documentary series that included occasional fiction.
“Whistle And I’ll Come To You” (May 7,1968). Produced and directed by Jonathan Miller; story by M.R. James (“Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad”). CAST: Michael Hordern as Professor, Ambrose Coghill as Colonel, and George Woodbridge as Hotel Proprietor. *** A Professor on holiday finds an ancient whistle next to a grave. The inscription reads whistle and I’ll come to you. The Professor blows the whistle and his life is changed forever.
I am not a fan of ghost stories so I have not read any of M. R. James’ work. This adaption by Jonathan Miller is regarded as the best of James’ work.
This ghost story was not what I expected. There was no action or conflict or screams. Instead the drama relies on the characters. Michael Hordern captures the Professor, a man used to living alone with his books. The pace is slow and the background soundtrack has natural sounds rather than music. It all gives the story a feeling of reality.
DARK SHADOWS (ABC, 1966-1971): Created and Executive Produced by Dan Curtis. CAST: Joan Bennett as Elizabeth Collins Soddard, Alexandra Moltke as Victoria Winters, Louis Edmonds as Roger Collins and Mitchell Ryan as Burke Devlin.
DARK SHADOWS is one of my favorite TV series from my childhood that happily holds up today. It is a gothic horror soap opera where every character has a mystery. The low production values and black and white video adds to the uneasy mood. This is a perfect example of why restoring every television series into high definition blu-ray quality is a mistake.
“Season One Episode One” (June 27,1966): Story Created and Written by Art Wallace. Directed by Lela Swift. CAST: Elizabeth Wilson, Kathryn Leigh Scott and Conrad Bain.
Young Victoria leaves the only home she has ever known – a founding hospital – to take a governess job for the wealthy eccentric Collins family. Meanwhile the Collins family has their own secrets.
How can anyone do a list of any genre of TV shows without including a TV detective series? The horror genre has offered many to chose from, I picked SPECIAL UNIT 2.
SPECIAL UNIT 2 (SYFY, 2001-2002) Created and Executive Produced by Evan Katz. CAST: Michael Landes as Detective Nicholas O’Malley, Alexondra Lee as Detective Kate Benson, Richard Gant as Captain Page and Danny Woodburn as Carl the Gnome.
The Special Unit 2 is a little mentioned part of Chicago police department. The Unit’s duty is to enforce the law among the supernatural community known as links.
“The Eve” (October 31, 2001) Written by Josh Lobis and Darin Moiselle, Directed by Oscar Costo. CAST: John de Lancie, Stefan Arngrim and Christine Caux. *** It is Halloween, the least favorite day for Special Unit 2. Humans are dressing up as links (monsters and demons) making it impossible to tell the good guys from the bad. A powerful link is willing to kill for a key that Special Unit 2 had taken from him years ago.
Comedies in the horror genre are not uncommon. There is ADDAMS FAMILY, REAPER, STRUCK BY LIGHTNING and TOPPER. One of the better examples is EERIE, INDIANA.
EERIE, INDIANA (NBC 1991-92, 18 episodes; Disney Channel, 1993, 1 original episode and the original 18) Created by Karl Schaefer & Jose Rivera CAST: Omri Katz as Marshall and Justin Shenkarow as Simon – Creative Consultant: Joe Dante (GREMLINS)
This cult favorite features two boys exploring their hometown of Eerie Indiana. By all appearances Eerie is your typical small American town but it is really the center of all the weirdness in the Universe.
“The Hole In The Head Gang”(March 1. 1992) Written by Karl Schaefer. Directed by Joe Dante. CAST: John Astin, Justin Whalin and Claude Akins. *** Marshall and Simon meet the ghost of Grungy Bill, the worst bank robber in all history. Grungy had failed to rob the bank of Eerie thirteen times – the last attempt he forgot his gun. Now despite being dead he wants to make another attempt to rob the bank.
Horror shows are getting better and more graphic. Networks such as FX (AMERICAN HORROR STORY), AMC (WALKING DEAD), SHOWTIME (PENNY DREADFUL), USA (FALLING WATER) and SYFY (CHANNEL ZERO) are producing great horror series.
WYNONNA EARP (SYFY, 2016) Created and Executive Produced by Emily Andras. Based on a graphic novel series created and written by Beau Smith. CAST: Melanie Scrofano as Wynonna, Shamier Anderson as Dolls, Tim Rozon as Doc Holliday and Dominique Provost- Chalkley as Waverly Earp.
WYNONNA EARP is a western horror series about a demon-fighting descendant of the great Wyatt Earp. This kick-ass series was one of my favorites last season and will return for a second season sometime in 2017.
“Purgatory” (April 1, 2016) Written by Emily Andras Directed by Paolo Barzman. CAST: Michael Eklund, Katherine Barrell and Greg Lawson*** Wynonna reluctantly returns to her hometown and resumes her family responsibly to keep the demons Wyatt Earp had killed from escaping Hell.
It is unlikely this episode will remain on YouTube for long so here is the SYFY official video explaining the series premise.
Note the comment from Beau Smith that he created the comic book premise due to his love of Westerns and the old Universal Movie monsters. This brings us full circle from ROUTE 66’s belief the Universal Monsters would live forever.
The supernatural horror genre may be more graphic today but it maintains the same goals it has had from the beginning – to explore the emotion of fear.
BONUS VIDEO: Temporarily available to watch is the first episode of the new entertaining SYFY horror series VAN HELSING. It is a Van Helsing you have never seen before.
DONALD HAMILTON – The Threateners. Matt Helm #26. Fawcett Gold Medal, paperback origina1, 1992.
It’s become fashionable to curl the lip at series like Matt Helm, and speak of “formula,” and “predictable.” Well, okay; so what? Sausage and eggs haven’t changed a hell of a lot over the last 25 years either, but it’s still my favorite breakfast, and a Helm book is still pretty tasty, too.
An old flame of Helm’s pops up out of nowhere and is killed, along with Helm’s dog and the in-hiding author of a drug exposé book. Helm shepherds the widow to South America to retrieve material for another book, dodging both members of a rival government agency (Hamilton has used this device a lot; maybe a little too much) and the drug lord di tutti drug lords.
Ihere’s a few more killings, a couple of seductions, and a torture scene or two — Helm must be solid scar tissue by now. Sound familiar? Well, it is. If you’re looking for something new and different, look elsewhere. Me, I still like ’em just fine.
— Reprinted from Fireman, Fireman, Save My Books #5, January 1993.
Bibliographical Note: There proved to be only one more Matt Helm adventure, that being The Damagers (Gold Medal, 1993).
THE CLAY PIGEON. RKO Radio Pictures, 1949. Bill Williams, Barbara Hale, Richard Quine, Richard Loo, Frank Fenton. Director: Richard Fleischer.
Sandwiched between Bodyguard (1948) that I reviewed here and Armored Car Robbery (1950) that I reviewed here is another film noir programmer directed by Richard Fleischer, The Clay Pigeon, from 1949. Much like the other two films, it takes place in postwar boomtown Los Angeles.
Bill Williams portrays Jim Fletcher, a World War II Navy veteran who wakes up from a coma. The back of his head still hurts and he’s not sure what happened to him. He had been in a Japanese POW camp in the Philippines. Surely that has something to do with his condition. Not too long after waking up, he overhears his doctor and a nurse discuss the fact that he’s been accused of treason and is awaiting a court martial. Fletcher absconds from the hospital and heads to San Diego. Surely, his friend, fellow prisoner of war Mark Gregory will be able to help. It doesn’t take long for Fletcher to learn that Gregory is dead and that he’s been accused of his friend’s murder!
Suffice it to say, there are plot twists and unanswered questions. Did Fletcher really commit the murder? What is his amnesia preventing him from remembering? Eventually, Fletcher ends up teaming up with Gregory’s widow (Barbara Hale) to solve the myriad mysteries.
Overall The Clay Pigeon does a good job in keeping you on your toes. But here’s the thing about certain movie plots stemming from a leading character’s amnesia. Neither you, nor the protagonist in question, really know exactly what’s going on. The screenwriter thus has to walk a tightrope so as to keep the viewer engaged, all the while not revealing too much pertinent information too quickly. On the other hand, the screenwriter must find a way to make sure that the “big reveal,” so to speak, flows naturally from what has come before and doesn’t come too late in the movie.
Indeed, after murder and mayhem, it’s tempting to wrap things up with a tidy bow and an “ah-ha” moment and end the movie immediately after. Unfortunately, that is exactly what The Clay Pigeon ends up doing. The ending feels so tacked on, so forced that it actually ends up making the film far less memorable than it could have been.
Don’t get me wrong. I enjoyed watching this movie and admire Fleischer’s work in the film noir genre. It’s just that, compared to Bodyguard and Armored Car Robbery, The Clay Pigeon ends up feeling like an overly ambitious project that strives for a payoff that it’s not capable of delivering.
SLEEPING CAR TO TRIESTE. General Films, UK, 1948; Eagle-Lion, US, 1949. Jean Kent, Albert Leiven, Derek de Marney, Paul Dupuis, David Tomlinson, Alan Wheatley, Rona Anderson, Finlay Currie, Bonar Colleano, Zena Marshall, Grégorie Aslan, Hugh Burden. Screenplay by Allan MacKinnon from a story by Clifford Grey. Directed by John Paddy Carstairs.
An excellent spy story set on a train (and the famed Orient Express at that), a setting I can never resist, with a top notch cast, and an involving and cannily observed Ship of Fools style script and cast.
The film opens as suave adventurer Captain Zurta (Albert Leiven), in white tie and tails, robs an embassy safe in Paris during an embassy ball, cold-bloodedly kills a waiter who interrupts him, passes the diary he steals on to his associate Karl (Alan Wheatley) waiting outside, and rejoins his beautiful companion Valya (Jean Kent) to leave before they are discovered. Things start to go wrong though, when the next morning the two go to collect the diary and find Karl has double crossed them and fled to sell it on his own, catching the Simplon Orient Express (*) for Venice and Trieste (then a ‘free’ city between East and West whose very name suggested intrigue) and beyond to Zagreb and Istanbul.
The urgency of catching up with Karl, traveling as Charles Poole expatriate Englishman, is demonstrated by Zurta’s own admission: “Beyond Trieste I’m a wanted man. Beyond Trieste I am dead.”
Zurta and Valya just catch the train and it’s Grand Hotel of passengers, one of which is their quarry.
Aboard the train is married divorce lawyer George Grant (Derek de Marney) and the innocent young women he is taking for an illicit holiday Joan Maxted (Rona Anderson); comic Englishman, and former client of Grant’s, Tom Bishop (David Tomlinson); skirt chasing American soldier Sgt. West (Bonar Colleano) and sharing his compartment a bird enthusiast who won’t shut up; a pair of beautiful French girls returning from a shopping holiday in Paris and leaving boxes of hats with all the men on the train to avoid the customs fees; train chef Poirier (Grégorie Aslan) saddled with an English son of one of the line’s board members who wants to learn to cook but thinks boiled cod and chips is a delicacy; and just Poole’s luck, the last minute companion in his compartment, Inspector Joif (Paul Dupuis) of the Paris police, hero of the resistance, and something of a French Sherlock Holmes.
That sets off the game of musical compartments as Poole tries to get a compartment by himself, briefly succeeds, hiding the diary in the new one, then finds himself ejected as famous and penurious and vain international author McBain (Finlay Currie) and his abused secretary Mills (Hugh Burden) occupy the compartment.
But they are only on the train until Trieste where Poole can get it back if he can find a place to stay away from Joif and the two hunting him, which is how he stumbles of the illicit lovers at lunch as they try to avoid the obnoxious Mr. Bishop who is a notorious gossip and determined to organize a poker game with Grant, who has other things on his mind.
And when Zurta kills Poole and frames Grant only to find the diary is missing, all the differing threads begin to come together.
Screenwriter Allan MacKinnon was not only a first class writer of film thrillers, but a top notch thriller writer in his own right (Cormorant Isle) often compared to Victor Canning and Geoffrey Household (no mean company for comparison). John Paddy Carstairs was a first class British director, and the cast, while devoid of big names save perhaps Kent, is a who’s who of top British and International character actors.
Unusually the film hasn’t really got a hero per se. Grant, as played by de Marney, is a bit of a heel all too obviously leading the girl on, and her simpering willingness to be fooled detracts from too much sympathy for her character. Bishop, played with perfect obnoxious self centered British satisfaction and obliviousness by Tomlinson (Mary Poppins Mr. Banks), will save the day, but blindly and by butting in where he isn’t wanted.
McBain finds and tries to save the diary for himself because it will harm a country that has shunned him and his secretary Mills finds it and tries to blackmail him with it, a worm who all too easily returns to worm status. Zurta is a cold blooded killer willing to sacrifice anyone along the way with no moral or political axe but his own need for adventure and money. Valya, is a little sympathetic, but only a little so and rather ruthless herself in pursuit of her ideals. As for Jolif, he is willing to hang whoever’s neck the noose fits, rather like some real Paris policemen I knew.
That is probably why this one is such a delight. There is no United Nations message of international cooperation like Berlin Express and no dashing hero and spunky heroine like The Lady Vanishes. The train is filled with flawed people, not evil, even Zurta and Valya aren’t evil, just human beings caught up in their own comical and tragic dramas thrown together in an artificial environment and rather savagely, but with British reserve and taste, dissected as pressure is applied. The American is a girl chasing vulgarian (“We are tired of being liberated,” a French Zena Marshall tells him pointedly); the Scotsman is cheap, cruel, vain, and petty; the Brits are all insular and judgmental; and the Europeans all seem bored and a bit rude.
But it is all so expertly played and written that despite that you recognize the characters as humans deserving of sympathy for all their flaws depending on their varying degrees of innocence.
Sleeping car or not, no one, certainly not the audience, gets much sleep on this trip to Trieste.
* Just a note, but I traveled on the Orient Express in the seventies, and it never looked more like just another train than here. I suppose something to do with post-war austerity in England. The gilt and red velvet (the film is in black and white, but still …) are gone; there is no sense of the gilded cigar smoking cherubs on the dining car ceiling; and the windows in the compartments only open eighteen inches, not wide like British trains of that period as shown here.
Granted the train was not its glorious self in 1948, and not fully restored until the nineties (it wasn’t really the famed Orient Express when I rode it, not exactly, still twenty years or so from the full restoration to the glory of the great years pre-WWI and between the wars), but it was still much more cosmopolitan and less British commuter train than it appears here, a small flaw in an otherwise delightful film.