HE WALKED BY NIGHT. Eagle-Lion Films, 1948. Richard Basehart, Scott Brady, Roy Roberts, Whit Bissell, James Cardwell, Jack Webb. Director: Alfred L. Werker, with Anthony Mann (uncredited).
He Walked by Night was one of those movies that I knew existed and had always intended to watch. But for some reason, I never seemed to get around to doing so. Until now, that is. The verdict is mixed. On the one hand, there’s some excellent staging and cinematography — particularly in the last 20 minutes or so — in this true crime-inspired police procedural/film noir.
But the story, as far as it goes, is a particularly thin one, with far less character development than one would hope for in a movie so intently focused on the ways in which a criminal eluded the police for so long.
Richard Basehart portrays Roy Martin (alias Roy Morgan), a loner with a penchant for electronics who commits a crime spree in the greater Los Angeles area in the late 1940s.
Among his crimes is the cold-blooded murder of a LA police officer. It’s up to the LAPD to hunt him down and bring him to justice. Leading the effort is Sgt. Marty Brennan (Scott Brady) who gets some much-needed technical assistance from a police forensics expert (Jack Webb).
You wouldn’t know it from watching the movie, which gives next to no explanation for the crimes depicted on screen, but the backstory to the criminal portrayed by Basehart in He Walked by Night helps shed some light as to his possible motivations in carrying out his reign of burglary, robbery, and murder.
The character of Roy Martin was based on the real life criminal exploits of Erwin “Machine Gun” Walker, a former Glendale, California, police department employee who engaged in a crime spree in LA County in 1945-46. Walker, a Cal Tech drop out who witnessed Japanese atrocities during his service in World War II, was likely traumatized by his combat experiences and the subsequent guilt he felt for surviving an attack that killed many of his fellow soldiers.
Because of this lack of character development, the film ends up being a middling police procedural that, with a little bit of tweaking, could have been a far more formidable crime film. Still, there are enough gritty moments, particularly during the final sequence in which the LAPD hunts down Roy Martin in tunnels under Los Angeles, which should please film noir fans.
J. JEFFERSON FARJEON – Death in Fancy Dress. Bobbs-Merrill, US, hardcover, 1939. First published in the UK by Collins, hardcover, 1934, as The Fancy Dress Ball.
New Year’s Eve brings with it the Chelsea Arts Ball at the Albert Hall, where “ten p.m. till five a.m. sober folk discard their sobriety, flinging themselves into queer costumes and queerer mental activities in an attempt to forget the humdrum of existence.”
The reader follows here several characters who attend the Ball: Henry Brown, nondescript impecunious, timid; the Shannon family, at the head of which is a mutinous mogul; Sally, made up as Nell Gwynn and with the correct mental attitude; Sam, Sally’s stupid and incompetent confederate; and Warwick Hilling, who had given “protean” performances before All the Crowned Heads of the World, now down on his luck and preparing to appear for pay as a Balkan prince.
Much takes place at the Ball, though Hilling misses most of it, in this thriller — not “murder mystery,” as the publisher would have it. Indeed, there is no detective, either amateur or professional. If you can put yourself in the thirties’ mood and be willing to accept what would be regarded today as odd mental attitudes, you should enjoy the unlikely carryings on.
LES ROBERTS – The Cleveland Connection. Milan Jacovich #4. St. Martin’s, hardcover, 1993; paperback, 1997.
I think that over the last few years, Les Roberts has been quietly and unobtrusively become one of the best writers in the field. He now has nine books to his credit. five with the Californian Saxon, four featuring the Cleveland PI Milan Jacovich, and I think he’s gotten better with each book.
Jacovich is asked by the now-husband of his ex-wife to help in locating an old man who had disappeared. While both he and the family he is to help are of Yugoslavian decent, they are Serbs, and he is a Slovene; a significant distinction, as readers of today’s newspapers will recognize.
The old man, a survivor of a Nazi death camp, is eventually found, victim of an execution-style murder. Why was he killed? Do the answers lie in his present, or in his buried past? Ever the questing knight, Jacovich begins turning over the stones. At the same time, he must deal with a reporter friend’s being threatened by a local mobster.
The Jacovich books seem the darker of Roberts’ series to me; reflective, somber, often grim, always infused with a sense if mortality and human frailty. Jacovich is the quintessential moral man, always bound by his own ideas of rightness regardless of the consequences to himself or anyone else. Roberts’ characterization is strong, and his creation stands out from the herd.
I value a sense of place, and Cleveland is a palpable presence here. Roberts knows the city well, and if he doesn’t love it, he fakes it superbly. His prose is excellent, striking a balance between straightforward narrative and evocative description. The story came to a not unforeseen if not inevitable conclusion, but it was about journey as much as destination, anyway. This one is good.
— Reprinted from Ah Sweet Mysteries #6, March 1993.
Bibliographic Update: There are now six books in Roberts’ Saxon series, and 19 in his books about Milan Jacovich, with two of the last three co-written with Dan S. Kennedy. The most recent was Speaking of Murder from 2016. Roberts has also written two books in a short series about Dominick Candiotti and one stand-alone novel.
THE BLACK CASTLE. Universal, 1952. Richard Greene, Boris Karloff, Stephen McNally, Rita Corday, Lon Chaney Jr. and Michael Pate. Written by Jerry Sackheim. Directed by Nathan Juran.
A ripping yarn from producer William (Tarantula, Creature from the Black Lagoon…) Alland, this was marketed as a horror film, but it’s more like a swashbuckler with a few creepy elements.
Richard Greene, who will always be Robin Hood to me, stars as an English aristocrat going undercover as a guest of Count Von Bruno (Stephen McNally) the tyrannical lord of a castle in the Black Forest, who had a somewhat checkered past in Africa (he still keeps an alligator pit to remind him of the good old days) and may have murdered two of Greene’s friends.
And that’s pretty much all the plot there is here: Greene sneaks around trying to get the goods on McNally, romances his countess (Rita Corday) crosses blades with his toady (Michael Pate) and generally plays the doughty swordsman to the hilt (see what I did there?) as he exposes McNally’s villainy…. and gets coffined alive in the process.
Boris Karloff has a supporting part here, but it’s an interesting one: the Castle Physician, whose loyalty (or disloyalty?) to the Count forms the linchpin of the story, as sundry poisonings, mysterious deaths and other nonsense peppers the plot. But it’s rather sad to see Lon Chaney Jr. lumbering around fat, drunk and grunting, particularly when I recall him playing so effectively off Karloff in House of Frankenstein (1944) a memory more poignant because most of the background music in Black Castle was lifted from the earlier film.
But the show here really belongs to Stephen McNally, one of the best bad guys of his day, and he carries it off wonderfully, alternately baleful and leering, laughing maniacally when the occasion demands, and generally carrying on in the best Lugosi tradition. It’s the sort of part that’s hard to take seriously unless you’re a little kid (or a kid at heart) but McNally plays it without a trace of condescension, aided enormously by director Nathan Juran (7th Voyage of Sinbad, Attack of the 50′ Woman…) who keeps things moving and puts the action scenes across with inventive camera angles and an infectious sense of fun.
RUFUS KING – Holiday Homicide. Doubleday Crime Club, hardcover, 1940. Dell #22, paperback, mapback edition; no date .
This is a possibly dubious entry despite the title and the fact that the murder takes place on New Year’s Day.
On board his yacht Coquina in New York City, Cotton Moon, private detective and nut — the edible kind — collector, is hit on the forehead by a sapucaia nut, a genuine rarity. It had been tossed inadvertently at him from, and brought his attention to, another anchored yacht, the Trade Wind, owned by a millionaire real-estate mogul, who had been shot in his bed, it appears, during the noisy revelry early on New Year’s Day.
Moon investigates at a fee even Nero Wolfe wouldn’t sneer at and encounters another murder, an attempted murder, an earthquake and a hurricane.
This book has its moments, but they are brief and sporadic ones. Apparently King himself was aware it wasn’t a completely successful idea since this is his only novel featuring Cotton Moon.
HENRY KANE – Who Killed Sweet Sue? Avon, paperback original, 1956. Signet D2575, paperback, January 1965. British title: Sweet Charlie (Boardman, hardcover, 1957).
Here’s an example in which the British title makes a lot more sense than the US edition does. There are maybe a half dozen people named Charles, Charlie, Chas., Charlene, or C. Smith Applegate, Jr. and Sr., but no one named Sue. I can’t have missed her!
The private eye in most of Henry Kane’s novel was a Manhattan-based fellow named Peter Chambers, and though he can mix well enough in sophisticated circles, he’s a guy as tough as they come. And it always amazes me that he’s a pretty good detective too, at least in his earlier cases. You have to keep a close eye on the clues in this one. The smallest detail may matter.
He’s hired twice in the same day by two clients whose interests may overlap, but since the second one, a strip tease dancer who specialty is snakes as part of her act, doesn’t tell him why she’s hiring him, he takes her on also. (Twenty thousand dollars in cash helps make decisions like that very easy.)
The earlier client is a well known British actor now working in the US named Charles Rexy, and yes, he’s known to the tabloids as Sexy Rexy, which is part of his problem. He’s being blackmailed (home movies have been taken) and the stripper may be part of it.
The number of characters that Chambers comes across in the course of is investigation simply grows and grows. If it weren’t for a full page, one paragraph summary about halfway through, a veritable scorecard for all the players, a reader might throw up his or her hands in frustration and dismay. I know; I nearly did. But I’m glad I persevered. The second half of the book, story-wise, is well worth waiting for.
Henry Kane also had a way with words, there’s no doubt about it, and there a certain rhythm that you as a reader have to adjust to, or you’re going to left out in the cold. Luckily for me, I have the beat.
It was ten years ago today that my daughter and son-in-law got me started with a new way to spend my time: this blog. I didn’t have any particular goals in mind, only to use this space to talk about things that interested me, with a particular emphasis on mystery fiction.
And as time went on, other items of interest came along. Check out the categories in the right hand panel, and you’ll see what I mean. Nor have I been the only one to have used this space. I’ve invited a small host of others to talk about whatever has interested them as well. I’m happy to have been able to do so. I’d have run out of things to say long ago if I’d left it to be done on my own.
This is now post number 5525, and following those posts, 29,678 comments have been left. This does not include 8,564,846 spam comments no one has ever seen. For reasons that were important at the time, I almost shut this blog down at least twice. I’m glad I didn’t. Thank you all for stopping by as often as you have.
THE PARALLAX VIEW. Paramount Pictures, 1974. Warren Beatty, Paula Prentiss, William Daniels, Walter McGinn, Hume Cronyn. Screennplay: David Giler & Lorenzo Semple Jr., based on a novel by Loren Singer. Director: Alan J. Pakula.
[Since it’s really not possible to adequately discuss Alan J. Pakula’s hyper-paranoid thriller, The Parallax View, without giving away the ending, this review is going to contain a multitude of spoilers. So, if you’d rather watch the movie first, by all means go right ahead and then come right back. Okay, now that I’ve gotten that out of the way … on to the review.]
Whether you love it or hate it, I think you’re sure to agree with me that The Parallax View is by no means an ordinary film. Some who watched it upon its initial release in 1974 may have not really known what to think of it. It’s a political thriller, but one that defies that genre’s traditional narrative structure in which a flawed, but well-intentioned, protagonist (usually a cop, government agent, reluctant warrior forced back into action) takes on an opposing force (a terrorist group, corrupt cops, etc.) and eventually defeated it, but also loses something fundamentally important (his values, his soul, a woman he loves, etc.) in the process.
That’s definitely not the case in The Parallax View, a film in which the protagonist is neither a cop, nor is he eventually triumphant. Instead, the movie’s lead character is a hot-headed (and not overly sympathetic) second-rate journalist with more than a smidgen of antisocial tendencies.
More importantly, he is fundamentally doomed from the start. Simply put: he simply never has a chance. To that extent, The Parallax View fundamentally inverts the Hollywood formula wherein the audience is enticed into rooting for a sympathetic individual to triumph over a villain. Instead, the movie presents a scenario in which the individual not only fails to achieve his goal, but he does so in such a way that his very efforts will never be adequately preserved for posterity. And the villain, such as it is in this untraditional film, is an amorphous, faceless one.
Let me explain.
Warren Beatty portrays Joseph Frady, an intrepid, but hardly topnotch journalist. He doesn’t seem to have many friends and, from what little we know about him, he doesn’t seem to be capable of a stable romantic relationship. When the movie begins, Frady is in Seattle where a United States Senator is campaigning for the White House. Since he isn’t properly credentialed, he isn’t able to take the elevator up to the top where there is a fancy reception.
And maybe it was for the best, since the Senator ends up getting assassinated. What Frady doesn’t see (since he isn’t there as far as we can tell), but we as the viewer do see (this is important) is that there are actually two gunmen, both dressed as waiters. After the senator falls to the ground, security staff rush one of the gunmen and end up chasing him to the top of the structure, where he eventually plunges to his death. But they chased the wrong man. The real shooter got away. But that doesn’t stop a government committee, clearly modeled on the Warren Commission, from concluding that the assassination was the work of a single lone gunman.
Flash forward three years and Frady’s working for a California newspaper, covering low-level crimes and generally getting into trouble. He receives a visit from his ex-girlfriend, Lee Carter (Paula Prentiss), also a reporter. Notably, she was one of the reporters who was on the Space Needle that fateful day three years ago and witnessed the two “waiters” interacting with one another just moments before the shooting. She has some foreboding news for Frady, claiming that a lot of the people on the Space Needle that day have recently died in suspicious circumstances. Frady doesn’t buy it. He not only accepts the official version of events, but also thinks that Lee (Prentiss) is mentally unstable. All that changes when she ends up dead, the supposed victim of drug abuse.
Her death is the film’s inciting event, the one that leads the protagonist (Frady) to take action (investigate Lee’s death). Frady goes to see a friend, an ex-FBI agent so as to obtain a fake identity (that of a social misfit) that would allow him to discretely investigate the mysterious death of one of Lee’s colleagues who was also on the Space Needle.
After watching the movie as a whole, one begins to realize that Frady’s (Beatty) very first move may have fundamentally doomed him from the start. For by taking on the identity of a social misfit, Frady has positioned himself for eventual destruction. This begs the question that plagues the whole movie: at what point does Frady become the object of others’ machinations rather than an autonomous moral agent capable of shaping his own decisions within the world in which he finds himself?
Frady’s investigation, meandering as it is, eventually leads him to a print advertisement from some entity called the Parallax Corporation. They seem to be looking for a certain type of person to join their mysterious company. Frady soon concludes that Parallax is in the business of recruiting assassins and becomes determined to infiltrate the faceless corporation. His investigation leads him to take two personality tests to see if he is the right “fit” for Parallax. While the first is a written one, the second is both auditory and visual.
Frady is subject to a five-minute montage film in which words are overlaid with visual images of both patriotism and violence. Owing much to Soviet montage film theory, the film-within-a-film sequence (embedded below) fundamentally shifts the film away from a fairly predictable political thriller to something much more ambitious. Simply put, The Parallax View stops being a mere political thriller and more a meta-movie about film as an artistic and visual medium and the ways in which films can shape our understanding of the political world.
For what happens to Frady after he watches the montage is both bizarre, in a narrative sense, and an implied commentary on how people think they understand pivotal moments in political history. After a series of fairly off kilter sequences, Frady ends up at a Los Angeles convention center where another US Senator is preparing for a major campaign speech. He suspects, rather knows, that Parallax is going to make an attempt on this Senator’s life and he’s determined to stop them.
But he’s too late. The assassination goes forward. More shockingly, Frady immediately realizes that he has been set up as the patsy for the killing. He – or the social misfit whose identity he has assumed in order to investigate Parallax – is going to go down in history as the crazed lone gunman responsible for the killing. Just as in Seattle, a committee will conclude that he acted alone. Such is the conspiratorial view of history as presented in The Parallax View.
Yet, one need not even remotely subscribe to conspiratorial thinking to appreciate what Pakula attempted to pull off in this movie. For as I understand it, Frady was doomed from the moment he took on the fake identity. And here’s why: Parallax was never in the business of recruiting assassins. They are in the business of recruiting patsies, individuals with personality types who would make convincing fall guys for killings carried out by their professional cadres.
In some ways, that’s what’s most subversive about the movie. For if Parallax was in the business of recruiting patsies and not assassins, then Frady was simply just another pawn on Parallax’s chessboard. At some moment, he ceased being the lone individual struggling to find out the truth and just an object being molded into the perfect pasty. The key question – and one the movie never answers – is when. At what point does Parallax decide that Frady is going to be one of their fall guys?
Up to now, I’ve essentially focused my attention on the film’s plot. But the plot cannot be separated from the visual means by which the narrative unfolds. Much of the movie is filmed in wide shots, wherein individuals are subsumed in comparison to imposing structures such as the Space Needle, a dam, and an office building. Befitting the film’s title, much of the movie is about points of view and how the spectator’s point of view often determined what he perceives to be the truth. Owing much to film noir, The Parallax View is likewise preoccupied with what happens in the shadows, both figuratively and literally.
All of this leads me to a discussion that is sure to provoke some debate. Is The Parallax View a successful film or an overly ambitious well-intentioned failure? Or is it something in between? Is it merely pretentious or does it work at provoking the viewer into thinking critically about what he just watched? That surely depends upon your point of view or, more fundamentally, on what you think you just watched.