June 2018


REVIEWED BY DAN STUMPF:


RETURN OF THE BAD MEN. RKO, 1948. Randolph Scott, Robert Ryan, Anne Jeffreys, “Gabby” Hayes, Jacqueline White, Steve Brodie, Tom Keene (as Richard Powers), Lex Barker, Tom Tyler, Robert Armstrong. Written by Charles O’Neal, Jack Natteford & Luci Ward. Directed by Ray Enright.

   Back in the 1940s Universal opted to draw in the horror movie fans by teaming up their monsters, starting with FRANKENSTEIN MEETS THE WOLF MAN, continuing with HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN/DRACULA and even ABBOTT & COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN. Columbia nodded to fashion with a vampire/werewolf team in RETURN OF THE VAMPIRE, but basically the fiendish team-up thing was the province of Universal — in Horror movies, that is.

   In Westerns it was much the same. The success of big-budget hits like JESSE JAMES, BELLE STAR and BILLY THE KID prepared the ground for Outlaw Biopics like BADMEN OF MISSOURI and WHEN THE DALTONS RODE, but it was RKO that brought on the Owlhoot Rallies with BADMAN’S TERRITORY (1946) and RETURN OF THE BAD MEN (’48) to be followed up by BEST OF THE BAD MEN (’51.)

   RETURN pits Billy the Kid, The Daltons, Bill Doolin, the Younger brothers and the Sundance Kid against Randolph Scott, which seems a trifle unfair — to them. Mostly it’s a silly thing, with tiresome comic relief from Gabby Hayes and a clunky romantic conflict between Jacqueline White as Scott’s fiancée and Anne Jeffreys as the outlaw gal redeemed by her love for the square-jawed lawman. Sigh.

   But hold on thar, there’s more to RETURN OF THE BAD MEN than you might expect. The story offers plenty of ridin’ shootin’ and fightin’, and director Ray Enright delivers it with maximum pace and camera angles well-judged to emphasize each shot and every punch.

   Enright also gives the film a surprising mix of moodiness and realism, as when the bad guys advance on a ranch house military-style, darting from cover to cover, or a jerky tracking shot of the Sundance Kid at the end of a long chase, his tired horse staggering beneath him as they stumble into his Ghost Town Hideout.

   Said Sundance is played with edgy nastiness by Robert Ryan, who brings a jarring but welcome touch of noir to the whole thing. Cameraman J. Roy Hunt (of SHE and FLYING DOWN TO RIO) frequently lights him from below, a disturbingly unnatural effect for a Western, and Enright composes his shots so that Sundance always looks like an outsider in a band of outcasts.

   Ryan himself more than lives up to the concept, snarling and glowering in between strangling Anne Jeffreys and gunning down Charles Stevens in cold blood. Best of all, his acting collides beautifully with Randy’s stoic decency, giving the whole thing a dramatic conflict that surprised me no end.

   RETURN OF THE BAD MEN is almost by definition a pre-destined Dumb Movie, but it sparkles with flashes of intelligence I will remember longer than many “important” films.

ERLE STANLEY GARDNER “Lord of the High Places.” Speed Dash #12. Top-Notch Magazine, February 1, 1928.

   When I started reading this story, I was under the distinct impression that it was the very first appearance of Richard “Speed” Dash, since Gardner spent so much space explaining who he was and what skills he had. Not so. I was wrong about that. With the resources available to anyone on the Internet in today’s world, it was not difficult to learn that it came along well after the middle of the series. Speed Dash’s first adventure into crime-solving appeared in the February 1, 1925, issue of Top-Notch Magazine. There were twenty in all, all for the same magazine.

   In his early days Speed Dash worked in side shows and circuses as an acrobat, or in particular a so-called “human fly,” with the strength and ability to climb nearly perpendicular surfaces, using, we are told, only the tips of his fingers. But after doing a regime of experimental exercises prescribed by a noted psychiatrist, he developed what is called in the vernacular a photographic memory, and he decided to turn his talent to crime-solving.

   In “Lord of the High Places” he his hired by a rich debutante who is looking for adventure. She has been shown a map of hidden treasure on an island somewhere in the South Seas, and wanting some excitement in her otherwise boring life, she has agreed to finance the venture, but only if she can convince Speed Dash to come along.

   The map is a phony, of course, and Dash is prepared for that, but what he does not plan on is that all of his backup contingencies will fail, and he and the two women are quickly caught between the gang they came in with, another rival gang of pirates, and the savage natives already on the island. See the cover for the means that Dash finds of making his escape. It is quite accurate.

   This is the first adventure of Speed Dash I have read, and it will probably be the last, as I have sold off all my copies of Top-Notch Magazine in which his adventures were recorded. I do not think I am missing anything, however. Action-adventure is not typical Erle Stanley Gardner fare, and he is no better than average at it. Many pulp writers knew their exotic locales a whole better than I think Gardner did.

   An interesting change-of-pace, in other words, but far from essential, even for Gardner fans.

ELIZABETH PETERS – Borrower of the Night. Vicky Bliss #1. Dodd Mead, hardcover, 1972. Paperback reprints include: Dell, 1974. Tor, 1990. Avon, 2000.

   The first adventure of Vicky Bliss, and what a woman she is! Tall, intelligent — a doctorate in history — and beautiful! — she claims to have measurements straight out of Playboy magazine, although she demurely declines to be specific. (Too good to be true?)

   At stake, a treasure hidden somewhere in an old German castle, complete with ghosts in creaking armor, old tombs and secret passageways. The whole can be less than the sum of its parts, however, and on page 169 [of the Tor edition] the characters themselves admit the story is getting corny.

— Reprinted and very slightly revised from Mystery*File #21, April 1990.


The Vicky Bliss series —

1. Borrower of the Night (1973)
2. Street of the Five Moons (1978)
3. Silhouette in Scarlet (1983)
4. Trojan Gold (1987)
5. Night Train to Memphis (1994)
6. Laughter of Dead Kings (2008)

REVIEWED BY JONATHAN LEWIS:

   

DOWN THREE DARK STREETS. United Artists, 1954. Broderick Crawford, Ruth Roman, Martha Hyer, Marisa Pavan, Max Showalter (as Casey Adams), Kenneth Tobey. Screenplay by Bernard C. Schoenfeld and The Gordons (Gordon & Mildred), based on the latter’s novel Case File: FBI. Director: Arnold Laven.

   If you can get past the grating voice-over narration designed to constantly remind you that the brave men of the FBI fight crime like this every day, Down Three Dark Streets is an enjoyable, if somewhat ordinary, crime docudrama. Directed by Arnold Laven, who is perhaps known more for his work in television, this lesser known film noir features Broderick Crawford as FBI Agent John Ripley of the Los Angeles field office. His task is to solve what appears at first to be three completely unrelated crimes: a wanted criminal on the lam; an extortion plot targeting a widow by the name of Kate Martell (Ruth Roman) and her young daughter; and an auto theft ring.

   When Ripley’s partner is gunned down while following up on a lead on one of the cases, the stakes are raised. Now it’s not just business. It’s personal. Or so that’s what’s the impression I think the viewer is supposed to get. Oddly, though, you never really get a sense of Ripley’s personality, let alone his personal life. Crawford portrays him as somewhat monkish, if also tough and jaded. Perhaps this was by design, with the filmmakers wanting to show the FBI as an organization so devoted to the job of protecting the public that their agents don’t have time or the luxury of families and friends.

   What makes Down Three Dark Streets worth a look, though, is in its hardboiled dialogue and its cast. There are some fine character actors here. Max Showalter portrays a sleazy real estate agent living beyond his means; Claude Akins takes the role of a boxer and an underworld enforcer; and Jacob Adler (brother of Luther and Stella) is well cast as the deadbeat uncle living with Kate Martell (Roman).

   And last, but by no means least, is the final sequence, a showdown filmed on location under the W of the Hollywood sign. It’s a great, albeit little known, moment in crime film history, with dollar bills blowing in the wind through the Hollywood Hills.

REVIEWED BY BARRY GARDNER:


MICHAEL RALEIGH – The Maxwell Street Blues. Paul Whelan #3. St. Martin’s Press, hardcover, 1994. iUniverse, paperback, 2000.

   Paul Whelan, a PI who specializes in finding people who don’t want to be found, has his usual not much of anything going when a black lawyer comes to him with a case. The lawyer has a client, he says, who wants a missing relative, an aging black man, found.

   He can’t tell Whelan much about the man, but that’s all right — Whelan’s used to that. He takes the case but doesn’t find the man, because the police find him first. Murdered. The cops quickly arrest two young black men, but a friend of the dead man doesn’t think they did it, and talks Whelan into doing some discreet poking around.

   It has better be discreet, because it’s an open murder case and the investigating detective is an old enemy of Whelan’s. Once more into the breach we go, down Chicago’s own particular brand of mean streets.

   I don’t know why, but I seem to like Chicago books better than New York books, whether they’re cop, PI, or whatever. Raleigh does Uptown Chicago about as well as it can be done. The city is as much of a character as most of the people, too.

   I like Paul Whelan a lot. He’s a man who has come to terms with his life and who he is and what he does, and all this without a lot of breast-beating and philosophical posturing. Raleigh tells his tale in the third person through Whelan’s eyes, with a lot of easy, realistic dialogue, and with smooth, clean prose.

   It’s a low key story, about people rather than society or Big Issues, and I think it’s a good one, told by a very good writer.

— Reprinted from Ah Sweet Mysteries #15, September 1994.


The Paul Whelan series —

1. Death in Uptown (1991)
2. A Body in Belmont Harbor (1993)
3. The Maxwell Street Blues (1994)
4. Killer on Argyle Street (1995)
5. The Riverview Murders (1997)

Live on THE JOHNNY CARSON SHOW, a song from her 1987 album “Angel with a Lariat”:

REVIEWED BY DAN STUMPF:


THE FUZZY PINK NIGHTGOWN. United Artists, 1957. Jane Russell, Ralph Meeker, Keenan Wynn, Adolphe Menjou, Robert Harris, Una Merkle, Fred Clark. Screenplay by Richard Alan Simmons, from a novel by Sylvia Tate. Directed by Norman Taurog.

   An odd item: a comedy without laughs, directed by Norman Taurog, who specialized in that sort of thing.

   Jane Russell, playing Big Hollywood Star Laurel Stevens, gets kidnapped by nice guys Ralph Meeker and Keenan Wynn, on the night her new movie The Kidnapped Bride premieres. She’s held in durance vile in a luxurious beach house, which signals right away that no one takes this seriously, and she and Meeker fall in love.

   The twist is that the studio head (Menjou) thinks it’s a publicity stunt cooked up by her agent (Harris, whom you no doubt remember as the Mad Makeup Man in How to Make a Monster) and Harris thinks Menjou is behind the whole thing. Cops and gossip columnists line up in disbelief, and before long, the only ones fretting are Russell and her gentle abductors.

   Which leads to the plot point that kept me watching:

(SPOILER ALERT –WARNING: PLOT AND RESOLUTION AHEAD. CONSIDER ALTERNATE ROUTE)

   The only way to save Jane’s career is for Ralph to actually get a ransom for her, which makes him a kidnapper and even if he gets away with it, he’ll have to flee the country, parting them forever. He loves her to much to hurt her, and she loves him too much to let him take the fall. So I kept wondering “How are they going to write their way out of this?” and stayed with it to the end — where they just shrug it off!

   I felt used. And cheap.

(END OF WARNING. RESUME NORMAL SPEED)

   On the plus side, the leads have a lot of charm, and good dialogue to display it. There’s excellent support from Adolphe Menjou, Una Merkel and Robert Harris — I kept waiting for them to say something funny, but the wait was in vain for nothing. Fred Clark actually got a laugh out of me with that shotgun face of his, but it served only to break the silence.

   A trashy guy like me gets a lot of fantasies thinking of Jane Russell in a Fuzzy Pink Nightgown, and if your mind is wont to wander in similar gutters… well, stay out of this one.

DONALD E. WESTLAKE – Somebody Owes Me Money. Hard Case Crime , softcover, June 2008. First published by Random House, hardcover, 1969; and Signet Q4800, paperback, 1971.

   It is difficult to realize that this comedy romp from one of the grand masters of comedy romp mysteries will have its 50th anniversary next year. The funny thing is that there’s almost nothing dated about it. Except for some technological advances such as iPhones that are missing, this wacky caper could have taken place yesterday, and what’s more there’s nothing in this plot that would have gone another way even if anyone did have an iPhone.

   Not that the plot is all that complicated, either. A cabbie named Chet Conway is given a tip on a horse that pays off at 27-to-1, but when he stops by his bookie’s apartment to get his money, he finds the bookie shot to death. Question: who’s going to pay him his $900?

   Major problem: his bookie was playing both sides of two rival crime gangs, and they both think Chet did it. Forget the money. Can Chet get out of the scrape he’s in alive? Aiding him is Abbie, the bookie’s sister, illustrated superbly on the book’s cover. (See above.) Not only is she luscious to look at, but she’s also a card sharp from Las Vegas.

   Minor problem, at least as far the story is concerned, is that the warfare between the two gangs, not all of whom are all that bright, which is where the comic element comes in, goes on a few pages too long. And of course after exhausting all of the plot possibilities so far suggested — and most of the participants — everyone eventually comes to realize that neither gang is responsible for the killing.

   This is a good thing, as it allows the tale to perk up again with a “gather all the suspects together” kind of ending which polishes off all the loose ends most satisfactorily.

   There are lots of copies of the Hard Case Crime edition around, so the book is not hard to find. Even though it’s almost 50 years old, you have no excuse for letting this one slip by.

REVIEWED BY JONATHAN LEWIS:


HIGHWAY DRAGNET. Allied Artists, 1954. Richard Conte, Joan Bennett, Wanda Hendrix, Reed Hadley, Mary Beth Hughes, Iris Adrian, Frank Jenks. Screenplay by Herb Meadow and Jerome Odlum. Director: Nathan Juran.

   It’s the cast and the filming locales that make the somewhat predictable Highway Dragnet worth watching. Produced in part by Roger Corman, this programmer is directed by Nathan Juran, who is perhaps best known for his work in the fantasy and science fiction genre.

   The movie stars Richard Conte as Jim Henry, a Korean War veteran falsely accused of the murder of a former model he meets in a Vegas bar. It’s only when he realizes that Las Vegas Police Lt. Joe White Eagle (a perfectly cast Reed Hadley) is playing for keeps that he decides to make a break for it and begins a life on the lam with the goal of finding the one man who could provide him with an unshakable alibi.

   What Henry doesn’t know is that one of the two women he has decided to hitch a ride with may actually be the real killer. Most of the movie follows Jim as he joins up with a saucy photographer (Joan Bennett) and her next top model (Wanda Hendrix) as they make their way across the Nevada border and into the sparse California desert. There’s some great scenery here and from what I can ascertain, at least a portion of the movie was indeed filmed in California’s Coachella Valley, a location now known more for its annual music festival than anything else.

   Overall, it’s a fun ride for the viewer. Conte may not have been the best actor for this specific part, but his work on screen is always generally solid and Highway Dragnet is no exception. Perhaps it was due to the film’s meager running time (71 minutes!), but one of the key plot points is given away in expositionary dialogue rather than in a cinematic form, something that detracts from the movie’s impact.

   But it’s really not worth that much complaining about. The movie works for what it was designed to do, namely to tell a story, raise the stakes, and provide a satisfactory conclusion in which the good guy clears his name and wins the girl.

JOHN D. MacDONALD – Deadly Welcome. Dell First Edition B127, paperback original; 1st printing, March 1959. Cover by Robert McGinnis.

   An unsolved murder in a small western Florida town is causing the Pentagon some difficulties, and to help resolve the situation, they call on Alex Doyle of the State Department. Although it’s his home town, Doyle’s problem is that when he left, it was not voluntarily, so not only must he solve the murder, he must also confront his past.

[NOTE] This review as originally written had two final closing statements. Here is the first:

   JDM was a gifted writer, but at times he was not a very subtle one. The girl is too obviously meant for Doyle,the villain too brutish and nasty, and the solution is far too easy.

    And here is the afterthought I included as a footnote to the review:

   That last line is far too negative. As you read it today not only does this book take you back in time to 1959 and the sights and sounds of what amazingly is now a bygone era, but Doyle’s problems take him back an additional 15 years as well, filling the book with the sad sweetness of coming home and seeing what has become of the place where you once lived, and the people (some of them) who still live there.

   The murder that has occurred is a part of this, but in many ways — believe it or not — it’s not even of primary interest in the story.

— Reprinted and very slightly revised from Mystery*File #21, April 1990.

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