THE DRIVER. EMI Films/20th Century Fox, 1978. Ryan O’Neal, Bruce Dern, Isabelle Adjani, Ronee Blakley. Written and directed by Walter Hill.
Ryan O’Neal plays it cool – really cool – as the eponymous Driver in Walter Hill’s genre bending contemporary Western/crime drama. Although on the surface, The Driver is just another action movie replete with urban car chases, the movie is a multi-layered, yet subtle, re-imagining of the Western film subgenre in which a renegade lawman becomes consumed with bringing an outlaw to justice.
Enter Bruce Dern, who is known for his seemingly effortless ability to portray unhinged characters. He portrays the Detective who relentlessly pursues the Driver, a skillful, ascetic getaway driver who has been involved in some high profile robberies in Los Angeles. Dern is actually quite effective in this role, and he chews the scenery throughout the film. There’s a goldmine of subtle dialogue sprinkled throughout the movie, much of it the Detective’s acerbic interactions with his colleagues and suspects alike.
That brings us to the Player (Isabelle Adjani), a gambler who the Detective suspects isn’t exactly truthful about what she witnesses during a casino robbery. Much like O’Neal, Adjani plays it cool with an understated performance that somehow makes the movie even stronger than it would have been had she showed more emotion. The Player is not afraid in getting caught up in the cat-and-mouse game between the Driver and the Detective. She may be mysterious and vulnerable, but she isn’t going to be so easily intimidated by either the cops or the criminals.
What the movie lacks in character development – seen most obviously in the lack of personal names for the main characters – it more than makes up for in skillfully filmed car chases, most of which take place without any music. Indeed, there is no fanfare to drown out the sounds of revving engines and squeaking tires. All of which serve to remind the viewer that, despite the fact that the narrative could just have easily been reworked for a gritty Western, that this is a car chase film par excellence.
THE 39 STEPS. Rank Films, UK, 1959; 20th Century Fox, US, 1960. Kenneth More,Tania Elg, Barry Jones, Brenda de Banzie, Reginald Beckwith, James Hayter, Faith Brook, Dunacan Lamont, Jameson Clark, Sidney James. Screenplay by Frank Harvey, based on the novel by John Buchan. Directed by Ralph Thomas.
This color almost scene-for-scene remake of the 1936 Alfred Hitchcock classic has many things to recommend it, and had there been no film of the book by the master would stand as the best version of the story committed to film. Four films of the classic novel of escape and pursuit by John Buchan have been made including a slightly more faithful to the book version with Robert Powell and a version done for PBS. The Powell has things to recommend it, less so the PBS version. Not too long ago Jonathan Demme was thinking of doing yet another adaptation of the book.
Of course, Hitchcock himself remade it at least twice using the essential story from his own film, once as Saboteur with Robert Cummings and once more as North By Northwest with Cary Grant. For all the changes, both are variations on the same theme and plot. With the possible exception of “The Most Dangerous Game,” The 39 Steps may be the most borrowed plot in film and modern genre fiction. Even Bob Hope’s My Favorite Blonde owed much to it, including the presence of Madeline Carroll.
This version produced by Betty Box, opens with Richard Hannay (Kenneth More) footloose and at loose ends in London. In the park he encounters a Nanny (Faith Brook) and tries to return a rattle dropped on the ground only to be rebuffed. Still trying to return the rattle he saves her from nearly being run down by a car and ends up with the pram, which had no baby in it, and her purse with no identity but a gun and tickets to a music hall performance that night at the Palace (and that’s a fairly placed clue for the handful unfamiliar with the film versions).
The Nanny shows up, and promises to tell him the story behind the empty pram, but only after they watch Mr. Memory (James Hayter), a little man with a prodigious memory for facts. They go to Hannay’s flat, where she reveals she works for the government and is being hunted by a spy ring led by a man missing the top joint of his little finger. Something important about a military project is being smuggled out of England and it has to be stopped (the classic Hitchcockian definition of a McGuffin, that exists only to move the plot forward).
Hannay goes to make tea and while he is doing that, the two men (Duncan Lamont and Jameson Clark), who tried to run her down earlier and who have followed her to Hannay’s flat, kill her with a dagger Hannay brought back from his adventures (in the book he is an engineer from South Africa, in the Hitchcock he’s Canadian, and here he appears to have been connected with the Foreign Office though not as an agent).
He knows the police will never believe him and the two killers are waiting outside in case he tries to leave. His only hope is to follow the few clues Nanny gave him and go to Scotland and try to see the important man she named.
Aside from the color, what sets this apart from the Hitchcock classic is its on location filming. Some spectacular shots, narrow misses, and eccentric characters (shopworn medium Brenda de Banzie and her cuckold husband Reginald Beckwith), a few new bits including Hannay asked to speak at a girls school rather than a political meeting as in the book and first film (a scene ‘borrowed’ and set in a nudist meeting in the film of Irving Wallace’s The Prize, another Steps influenced thriller), all add to the mix that made the first film so charming and this one a worthwhile remake.
If nothing else, the location color shooting expands the films feel for Buchan country, something suggested by a few scenes in the original.
Along the way Hannay meets Miss Fisher (Tania Elg), who is traveling with a group of school girls, who doesn’t believe a word he says, but has seen and knows too much, ending up handcuffed to him as he tries to reach London and discover just where and what the 39 steps are (this version does restore the original meaning of the steps of the title even if we never see them).
The cast is first rate, but it is More’s film, and like Robert Donat before him, the success depends greatly on his charm and abilities as a light comedian as much as a dramatic actor. Elg does quite well, but lacks the cool Hitchcock blonde demeanor of Madeline Carroll. It isn’t her fault, even Deborah Kerr had trouble recreating icy Carroll’s beauty in The Prisoner of Zenda scene-for-scene remake. Barry Jones (Brigadoon, Seven Days to Noon) is especially sinister as Professor Logan who exudes charm and threat with the same soft tones.
Sidney James, Reginald Beckwith, and James Hayter all bring their usual skills to bits in the film, as does Brenda de Banzie as a phony medium half convinced of her own con and attracted to all the wrong men. Ralph Thomas was always a competent director and often more, and screenwriter Frank Harvey not only wrote or co-wrote some of the best films of the period but was a first class novelist as well (The Mercenary).
Hitchcock’s film is the classic, and there is no suggestion this is anything but a shadow of that, but it is a strong and quite entertaining shadow, and as the first version of the story I saw, it has some pride of place for me. It served as my introduction to the works of John Buchan and to Kenneth More, and both have served me well in terms of entertainment over the years.
The 39 Steps has been adapted to four films, radio, the stage (a major hit on Broadway and London’s West End), comic books, appeared as a serial in Argosy, and audiobooks. The book is a recognized minor classic (major in the mystery genre), and Alfred Hitchcock’s film a classic in itself.
This version may not reach that high bar, but it does have charm, excitement, wit, and attractive leads in an entertaining film, and that’s not such a low bar to achieve for any film, especially a remake.
FREDRIC BROWN – The Wench Is Dead. E. P. Dutton, hardcover, 1953. Bantam #1565, paperback, 1957.
This finds Brown in David Goodis territory at his smooth, shattering best.
Howard (“Howie”) Perry is a High School sociology teacher studying the denizens of Los Angeles’ skid row by living as one of them as he angles for a master’s degree and a better teaching position. As the story opens he’s staying in a flophouse, washing dishes for a living, and spending most nights on the street, drinking himself comatose among the other winos, all in the name of Research.
He’s also carrying on a relationship of sorts with Billie, a good-natured B-Girl who likes him for his sensitive nature, and expresses her affection in a very physical way. There’s a murder early on, and the cops don’t know whodunit, but we’re not far into the book before we realize that this is not so much a mystery as it is an observation of Howard losing control and in danger of becoming one of the derelicts he’s supposed to be studying.
Brown keeps his story light, moving the plot along with telling details about Howie and his chums as they instinctively duck the police, desperately try to make up the price of a bottle, and stake out a safe place to drink themselves unconscious. Like David Goodis, Brown never looks down on his bums and winos, nor does he seek to make them noble savages; they’re just guys getting along their own way, with their own norms and goals in life, and in Brown as well as Goodis, these are the heroes of pulp fiction.
In fact, Howie does eventually solve the murder and see the killer brought to justice, but (again like Goodis) any sense of accomplishment is illusory. Howard Perry spends a whole murder mystery treading water, and if we see the ending coming a long way off, Fredric Brown still delivers it with a punch.
Gayle McCormick was the lead singer for the blues rock group Smith, which was formed in Los Angeles in 1969. They had two semi-successful albums before breaking up and Gayle McCormick became a solo performer. “Baby It’s You,” written by Burt Bacharach, sold over a million copies for them:
J. JEFFERSON FARJEON – Mystery in White. British Library, UK, softcover, 2014. Introduction by Martin Edwards. First published by Collins Crime Club, UK, hardcover, 1937. Bobbs-Merrill, US, hardcover, 1938.
There were some “lost classics” published during the Golden Age of Detection, I am sure, and this is almost — but not quite — one of them. The good news, though, is that as a puzzle story there are parts of Mystery in White that are absolutely terrific. If actual detective work in the crime fiction you read is your meat, this is definitely one you should not miss. The original edition is difficult, if not impossible, to find, but the recent reprint illustrated here is easy to obtain, and happily so.
This one starts out on a train stranded in a sudden blizzard that has blown up just before Christmas, and the passengers in one compartment decide as a group to hoof it through the snow to the next station. Not a good idea, as it turns out, since if trains can’t get through, then how can people on foot?
Suddenly a haven appears. A house with the lights on, the door unlocked, a blazing fire in the fireplace, and the table set for tea. But — and it’s a huge but — the house is otherwise empty. What should they do? Take advantage of the shelter, they decide, and repay their unseen host later, when they can.
But wait, there’s more. Apparently a murder was committed on the train, and a killer is on the loose. Strange noises are heard in the house, which also seems to have ghostly emanations throughout. And more: footprints in the snow are found coming and going all night long. There is also more than one murder committed, perhaps as many as three.
Doing an excellent job of deduction, at least in the first two-thirds of the book is the “old man” his fellow passengers first met on the train, or that is to say, Mr Edward Maltby of the Royal Psychical Society, and for a change, he allows his deductions to be challenged by the others — an absolute breath of fresh air from the infallible detectives of other books, those who hold back their thoughts and conclusions until the book is almost over and they’re finally ready to point their finger at the guilty party or parties.
It is too much too hope for, then, with such a buildup of atmosphere, clues and various cries for help and other mysterious events in the night, that the ending — and a final explanation — can live up to what precedes. Alas, it doesn’t, and nothing probably could. Anything less than pure legerdemain would be a letdown, and there’s too much tramping around in blizzard conditions and waist-high snow to be realistic. This is a book that’s still a lot of fun to read, but as I said in the first paragraph above, a lost classic? No, far from it, but it’s good enough that I wish I could say otherwise!
DR. JEKYLL AND THE WEREWOLF. Spain, 1972. Originally released as Doctor Jekyll y el Hombre Lobo. Paul Naschy, Shirley Corrigan, Jack Taylor, Mirta Miller. Story: Paul Naschy. Director: León Klimovsky.
In Dr. Jekyll and the Werewolf, the iconic Spanish horror star Paul Naschy reprises his role as the cursed Count Waldemar Daninsky, a man stricken with lycanthropy. In other words, he’s a werewolf. And like the cursed Larry Talbot (Lon Chaney, Jr.) of Universal Monsters fame, Daninsky is a brooding type, one who wishes nothing more than to escape the fate that the dark side of nature has seemingly imposed upon him.
Naschy is a fine actor, portraying both the tragic Daninsky and the werewolf version of himself with a physicality rarely seen in horror movies made nowadays. But it’s not his portrayal of a werewolf that makes this Spanish horror film worth a look. Rather, it’s his portrayal of Mr. Hyde, that iconic villainous id first introduced to the world by Robert Louis Stevenson that sets this otherwise clumsy, occasionally sleazy, horror movie apart from derivative grindhouse fare.
In a somewhat convoluted and admittedly silly plot – one that throws in horror trope after horror trope for good measure – Daninsky ends up in England where his new love Justine (Shirley Corrigan) introduces him to Dr. Henry Jekyll (Jack Taylor), grandson of the Victorian Era physician who unlocked the formula for dividing man into his good and evil halves. Jekyll thinks that he’s found a way to cure Daninsky of his curse. Amazingly, it involves turning Daninsky into Mr. Hyde and then using an antidote that will forever get rid of the lycanthropy and Mr. Hyde!
As you might imagine, things don’t exactly go as planned, leaving the fiendish Mr. Hyde to embark upon a reign of brutal, sadistic terror. Naschy might very well be remembered for portraying one of cruelest, most unhinged versions of Dr. Hyde ever set to celluloid. Indeed, there are moments in the film – one scene in particular that involves Mr. Hyde torturing Justine – that are so far over the top and out of context from the rest of the movie that they actually serve to pull the viewer’s attention away from the narrative.
That’s a shame, for Naschy’s Mr. Hyde is a truly memorable villain. The director could have done so much more with the natural talent he had on his hands, but instead seems to have gone for shock value galore over what could have been a much better, atmospheric horror film.
EARL DERR BIGGERS – The Black Camel. Bobbs Merrill, hardcover, 1929. Grosset & Dunlap, hardcover reprint; Photoplay edition. Paperback reprints include: Pocket #133, 1941; Paperback Library 52-312, 1964; Pyramid T-1947, 1969; Bantam N6315, 1975; Mysterious Press, 1987; Academy Chicago Publishers, 2009. Film: 20th Century Fox, 1931 (Warner Oland); remade as Charlie Chan in Rio, 1941 (Sidney Toler).
THE BACKWARD REVIEWER
William F. Deeck
“Death is the black camel that kneels unbid at every gate.” Charlie Chan quotes this Eastern saying when Shelah Fane, silent-movie star, is stabbed to death in Honolulu. A famous but fading actress, Fane is in Hawaii to finish off the final shots of a South Sea film started in Tahiti. Apparently she also had witnessed a murder of another movie star in Hollywood some three years earlier and was planning at last to reveal the murderer’s identity.
Chan has his work cut out for him in this investigation, particularly when the most likely suspect, a fortune teller, has an unbreakable alibi. Not a fair-play mystery, but Chan is always entertaining and interesting.
Although Inspector Charlie Chan of the Honolulu Police Department is a household name throughout the world, he appears in only six novels. The great number of films, radio plays, and comic strips inspired by Chan are proof of the compelling quality of Earl Derr Biggers’s creation. However, these offshoots do not do credit to Chan’s character. In them, he becomes a stereotypical Chinese, mouthing ridiculous platitudes and doing more than his fair share of bowing and scraping.
To anyone familiar with Chan only from the Thirties’ and Forties’ B-movies, Biggers’ novels will come as a refreshing surprise. In them, Chan is portrayed as an amiable, wise man, given to philosophic contemplation. He is an individual in whom the characteristics of the East and the West are delicately blended, and often Biggers uses this cultural mix in his plotting, allowing his detective to discern clues that either an Occidental or Oriental investigator would not.
Chan’s character is one of considerable depth — a welcome period departure from sinister Orientals such as Sax Rohmer’s Dr. Fu Manchu. Unfortunately, Biggers’ secondary characters tend to be less interesting, especially his melodramatic and overly romantic young men and women.
A sense of place is another aspect of fiction at which Biggers excelled. The Black Camel is set in the Honolulu of the Twenties — a city much different from the one we know today. Waikiki is a quiet beach community where trade winds “mumble at the curtains,” a place where flowers bloom unmolested, and the trip into the city itself is a long journey by streetcar.
When movie queen Shelah Fane rents a house on the beach, she expects a restful sojourn, but complications in the form of an ardent shipboard suitor, a disturbing session with her trusted fortune-teller, and fear of a secret in her past arise to disrupt it. When Shelah is found murdered, Chan is called in.
The star has left a letter for the fortune-teller, which could perhaps provide the vital key, but before Chan can read it, the lights in the house go out and it is snatched from him. Without this clue, the detective must sort through the conflicting stories of the murdered woman’s suitor, secretary, co-star, fortune-teller, tourist guide, butler, and a beachcomber — all of whom seem to have had ulterior motives where the film star was concerned.
An entertaining novel, with suspects galore, and a surprise ending.
MURRAY FORBES – Hollow Triumph. Ziff-Davis, hardcover, 1946. Reprinted as The Big Fake (Pyramid #97, paperback, 1953).
HOLLOW TRIUMPH. Eagle-Lion, 1948. Re-released as The Scar and The Man Who Murdered Himself. Paul Henried, Joan Bennett, Eduard Franz, Leslie Brooks, Mabel Paige and Jack Webb. Screenplay by Daniel Fuchs, based on the novel by Murray Forbes. Directed by Steve Sekely.
Murray Forbes’ Hollow Triumph has an interesting idea for a book: Henry Mueller is a failed medical student and small-time chiseler with an over-sized ego, fresh out of prison when he discovers he bears an amazing resemblance to Viktor Bartok, a prominent psychologist. Readers of this sort of thing will figure at once that Mueller will kill Bartok and take his place, and that’s pretty much what happens, but Forbes gives it a cute twist: Mueller’s impersonation becomes a greater success than he figured on (the American Dream: if you fail at one thing, re-invent yourself as something else) and as time passes, he wins even greater fortune and honor… and he can’t stand the fact that the murdered man is getting all the credit for his killer’s work: Mueller rubbed out Bartok, but it was Mueller who got erased, and his overweening pride leads him to….
It’s a clever thought, and somebody should write a book about it someday; Murray Forbes just didn’t seem too interested. Time and again he just tells us about things when he should be showing them. So we get lines like “She felt suspicious,” or “He was scared,” which ain’t exactly deathless prose. There are even points where Forbes seems to lose interest entirely, and instead of story-telling, he resorts to synopsis, resulting in passages like, “He went to New York to receive the honor, then came back and continued work with his patients…”
I kept reading, but I’m not sure why.
Fans of Old Time Radio may recall Murray Forbes as an actor on Ma Perkins and other programs, but this was his only novel, and in 1948 the Movies bought it, discarded most of the plot, noired up the rest, and released it under the original title and as The Scar, then as The Man Who Murdered Himself, creating an identity crisis to equal its protagonist’s.
Joan Bennett is quite good here in a softer role than usual, but Paul Henreid’s acting, like Forbes’ writing, is just perfunctory. On the other hand, there’s fine photography by John Alton, and Daniel Fuchs’ script makes intelligent use of a plot twist that would have been a facile punch-line in lesser hands.
Triumph/Scar/Murdered starts off with Henried/Mueller getting out of jail and leads quickly into a heist of a gambling joint (not in the book) that goes suspensefully wrong, leaving our antihero on the run from gangsters and hiding out in L.A. Things get tight when he’s spotted by the hoods, but when Mueller makes the switch with Bartok they get even tighter as he finds Bartok has a messy personal life, a grasping girlfriend… and is in debt to the Mob.
It’s all done in suitably noir style, but without the artistry that distinguishes films like Night and the City or Out of the Past. Director Steve Sekely had his moments (mostly marginal ones in B movies), and he doesn’t spoil this one, but he never gives it the subversive energy that marks the classics of the genre.
Fortunately Daniel Fuchs’ screenplay provides some unexpected highlights: Even when the leads fail to convince, the minor characters surprise us with quirky moments we weren’t expecting: A garage attendant starts dancing, a dentist turns loquacious, and a lowly scrubwoman proves to be the most perceptive character in the film.
The marginal virtues aren’t enough to completely redeem The Scar, but I’ll remember it a little longer for them….
SHE COULDN’T TAKE IT. Columbia Pictures, 1935. George Raft, Joan Bennett, Walter Connolly, Billie Burke, Lloyd Nolan, Wallace Ford, James Blakeley, Alan Mowbray, Donald Meek. Director: Tay Garnett.
Like the definition of film noir, and perhaps even more so, the concept of the screwball comedy has always been nebulous to me. Some films definitely fall in the category, beginning perhaps with It Happened One Night (1934), while other comedies are most clearly not. She Couldn’t Take It, as the case at hand, I’m going to say is; that is to say, if categories are important.
What the film most definitely is not, is a classic. The members of a screwball family make the headlines so often with their upper class escapades and spending habits that the father (Walter Connolly as patriarch Daniel Van Dyke) would rather go to prison than have to deal with their debts any longer.
And jail, as it turns out, suits him well, and it is where he meets former bootlegger and racketeer Spot Ricardi (George Raft), whom be befriends and on his deathbed, makes hm the guardian of the family. The comedy comes into full play then, and so does the romance, as Ricardi falls in love with daughter Carol Van Dyke, most fetchingly played by a young and very lovely Joan Bennett.
The criminous aspect of this film comes when Carol, in order to have some money to spend, arranges with a rival of Ricardi’s (Lloyd Nolan) to have herself kidnapped so she and he can split the ransom. Naturally things do not work out nearly as well as she planned. Very badly, in fact.
What takes place on the screen during this movie is obviously very contrived and the story does not flow as well as it should as a result, but as I say, Joan Bennett is always worth watching, and even George Raft turns in a performance in which he seems to be much more relaxed than he was in later films. Available on YouTube for free (see below), at least for now, this is far from being a “must see” film, but you may find as many moments worth watching as I did.