October 2018


ERLE STANLEY GARDNER – The Case of the Haunted Husband. William Morrow, hardcover, 1941. Pocket #590, paperback, 1949. Reprinted by Pocket several times. Ballantine, paperback; 1st printing, August 1981. (A later printing from 1985 is shown to the right.)

   Gardner was at his prime when he wrote this one, there’s no doubt about it. His client is a young woman who rather foolishly decided to make her way from San Francisco to Hollywood by means of hitch-hiking, which admittedly was a lot more common as a way of transportation than it is now, but when the man who picks her up in Bakersfield starts making a pass at her, she struggles and an accident happens.

   Someone in another car dies, and when she’s found as the only one in her car, no one believes her story and she’s charged with manslaughter. No one but Perry Mason, that is, and when he learns that the car she was in really belonged to wealthy Hollywood producer, his dislike of unequal justice kicks in immediately.

   Mason also liked his cases to be both challenging and complicated, and believe me, this one is both. It also has some juicy courtroom scenes, which I’m always looking forward to whenever I pick up a Perry Mason novel, and I don’t believe I’m the only one, then or now.

   We also get some time spent with Perry, Della, Paul and even Lt. Tragg at dinner time, the latter still on the other side of the case, but still to able to overcome that and joke around a little. I may be wrong, but I don’t believe this happened in the Mason books all that often. Of course it doesn’t take very long for Tragg to stumble over evidence that implicates Perry, who’s already been skating on thin ice in the case for far too long. More than any other defense attorney ever would.

   I mentioned up above that this is a complicated case. You can double or triple that statement with no trouble at all. I’m not sure I unraveled it entirely, even after reading through Mason’s explanation. It seems to make sense, but I’m not sure. There simply were too many people doing too many unusual things, both before and after the fatal accident.

   The end result is a lot of fun to read, but I thought I’d better warn you about the ending.

REVIEWED BY MICHAEL SHONK:


CASABLANCA “Siren Song” April 10, 1956. ABC – Warner Brothers. CAST: Charles McGraw as Rick Blaine, Marcel Dalio as Renaud. GUEST CAST: Mari Blanchard as Elsa Norden, James Mitchell as Francisco, Roberta Haynes as Maria, and Hayden Rorke as Henderson. Written by Frederic Brady. Directed by Richard L. Bare. Produced by Jerome Robinson – Executive Producer: William T. Orr. Based on film CASABLANCA (1942) – One of the rotating series under the title WARNER BROTHERS PRESENTS

   Despite its constant efforts to stop such behavior, YouTube is a great source for the TV fan. You never know what TV treasure you will find there. In this case it is a lost episode of the ABC-TV series CASABLANCA (1955-56).

   For those who have seen the TV premiere episode of CASABLANCA (1955-56) “Who Holds Tomorrow” (available on “Two Disc Special Edition” CASABLANCA – the film; DVD), “Siren Song” will show how far the series fell in its attempt to capture the magic of the movie.

   “Siren Song” is a complete episode of CASABLANCA, but missing the WARNER PRESENTS opening host segment by Gig Young and the end segment that went behind the scenes to promote a Warner Brothers film.

   The film CASABLANCA (1942) is still considered one of the greatest films ever made. The romantic adventure of two people and their doomed love affair still has meaning today.

   Warner Brothers has made two attempts at adapting the film to TV. I reviewed the NBC 1983 version here.

   The 1955 attempt was one of the rotating series under the title WARNER BROTHERS PRESENTS, along with KING’S ROW, CHEYENNE and a dramatic anthology. CASABLANCA would last only ten episodes of the scheduled thirteen.

   The series aired on Tuesday at 7:30 to 8:30 on ABC. Opposite on CBS was NAME THAT TUNE followed by NAVY LOG, on NBC it was DINAH SHORE then PLYMOUTH NEWS CARAVAN, at 8pm NBC rotated the MILTON BERLE SHOW, MARTHA RAYE SHOW and the CHEVY SHOW. DuMont left the time period to its local affiliates.

   “Siren Song” is a good but predictable TV noir complete with a man-hating femme fatale. The series itself had several flaws with the most serious being Charles McGraw in the Bogart role of the tragic romantic hero Rick Blaine.

   Retired matador Francisco yearns to return to the glory of the bullring. He ignores the warnings of his wife and his friend Rick that Francisco is too old to survive the ring.

   Everyone notices the beautiful blonde Elsa enter, a femme fatale who few men can resist. Elsa finds pleasure in destroying men. She discards her current lover and sets her sights on Francisco.

   Francisco falls for her charm, abandoning his loyal loving wife. It does not take much for Elsa to convince Francisco to fight the bull again.

   The film CASABLANCA proved too iconic for this early TV series to live up to, even for the premiere episode “Who Holds Tomorrow” that actually tried.

   Comparing the entrance and interior sets of Rick’s Café Americain in “Who Holds Tomorrow” to “Siren Song” illustrates the series budget cuts and that Warner Brothers had given up on the series.

   Director Richard L. Bare (77 SUNSET STRIP) did well in capturing the noir mood of the predictable script and the filming of the bullfighting scene was impressive for its time, but Casablanca, the city as well as the heart of the film, were missing.

   The series was set in contemporary 1955 Casablanca and portrayed the locale as a center of Cold War intrigue. However in the real world at that time Casablanca was a center of revolution between the Moroccans and the French and Spanish. During the time this series was on the air the French officially granted Morocco its independence.

   The tension between the natives and the French (and Spanish) was ignored in this episode and while politics played no role in “Siren Song,” the turmoil of the time should at least have been part of the background atmosphere.

   Even a greater mistake was the relationship between Rick and Renaud took a step back as if the movie’s ending never happened. Marcel Dalio was no Claude Raines but in a nice piece of trivia, he had played the role of Emil the croupier in the movie version.

   The fatal flaw was Rick. It is no surprise that McGraw failed to match Bogart as the tragic romantic hero. A bigger problem was Rick of the movie was not the Rick of this series. TV Rick seemed content, almost happy with his life. Where was the angst of the movie’s Rick that made the character so romantic?

   This episode as with many of early TV series focused on guest characters more than the main star of the series. But CASABLANCA’s appeal was more about Rick than the premise. The audience was there for Rick, not some story about random characters.

   The guest cast did OK. Mari Blanchard (DESTRY) was at her best, showing the glee she felt as she used a man and cruelly sent him off to his doom. Today’s old TV fans will notice Hayden Rorke from I DREAM OF JEANNIE, playing the man who paid the bills for his time with Elsa. James Mitchell (ALL MY CHILDREN) as Matador Francisco handled the bullfighting scene better than the self-pitying side of the retired bullfighter.

   The major film studios had always looked down on TV as the enemy, but Disney’s financial success of TV series DISNEYLAND the season before and how Disney used it to promote its other product convinced other major studios to give TV a try.

   WARNER BROTHERS PRESENTS was that series for Warner Brothers. While CASABLANCA and KING’S ROW were TV failures and other studios attacked Warner Brothers and ABC for the behind the scenes segment as being a six-minute free commercial for Warner Brothers films (which it was), the huge success of the third series CHEYENNE would keep Warner Brothers happy with the profits from the TV business.

   Without more episodes its remains difficult to judge this attempt to bring CASABLANCA to the small screen, “Siren Song” was a better than average TV noir drama for the early days of television. But anyone expecting to find the romance adventure worthy of the name CASABLANCA will be disappointed.

REVIEWED BY DAN STUMPF:         


EDGAR RICE BURROUGHS – The Monster Men. Ace #F-182, paperback, 1963. Cover by Frank Frazetta. First published by A. C. McClurg & Co., hardcover, March 1929. Cover by J. Allen St. John. Several other reprint editions exist.

   I was maybe 14 years old when I read a review of this book in Castle of Frankenstein magazine. I had a dollar at the time, so I got on the bus and went downtown to a place called the Paperback Gallery, a little bookstore that sold only paperbacks.

   It was there I picked up my first samples of Fu Manchu, Doc Savage, Mr Moto, Charlie Chan, the first EC reprints….. and got a copy of this. Came back home with enough left over for two chocolate bars, and had a high old time with it.

   And there it was, still on my shelf after all these years & tears & fears, just in time for Halloween.

   Reading The Monster Men in the wisdom of my advancing years, I found myself bemused by ERB’s awful prose and delighted by the pace he imparts to the story. Never mind Characterization; that don’t enter into it. It’s set on a tropical island in the South Seas, off Java and Borneo, and I wondered idly if Conrad’s Marlow might cruise by, or perhaps Somerset Maugham in search of a tale of human interest. But (SPOILER ALERT!) they didn’t.

   What does happen owes more than a nod to H.G. Wells’ Island of Dr Moreau, with an unhinged scientist, his lovely daughter and a small entourage on a tropical island where he can conduct his experiments in creating Men in relative privacy.

   Unfortunately, the mad medico’s first twelve attempts have produced only shambling monsters (hence the title of the piece) and the failures have addled him to the point where he vows to wed his daughter to Number Thirteen -– which, to everyone’s surprise, emerges from the vat looking like a Greek statue with a becoming tan.

   At which point the plot kicks into high gear, with a pirate attack, treachery within the ranks, head-hunters, a Monster rally, daring rescues, pitched battles and over it all, Number Thirteen, now known as Bulan, braving the jungle perils as one to the manner born.

   I should be ashamed to admit how much I enjoyed this. Burrough’s prose is so bad I sometimes suspect him of parody, but he keeps it moving without too much of the padding that marred the Tarzan books I tried to read back in the day. The story did eventually get to where most Burroughs books go: Everyone chasing each other around in the jungle, but in this one it seems a bit less protracted.

   Burroughs even surprised me with a bit of insight on the nature of the Soul here. He reflects a mind-set common in SF early in the 20th century, when artificial insemination was first used on animals, that a man-made creature would have no soul — an idea that surfaced in Alraune and elsewhere.

   Here, Bulan ponders his artificial origins and essential soullessness, then looks about him at the men he has encountered — pirates, thieves, and his mad creator — only to conclude that the Soul must be worth much less than the value men seem to attach to it.

   And this, oddly enough, is the kind of thing one does find in the tales of Conrad and Maugham in those same South Seas of fiction. Maybe not enough to elevate The Monster Men to the ranks of Great Literature, but it adds a bit of thoughtfulness to a ripping yarn.

PHOEBE ATWOOD TAYLOR – Death Lights a Candle. Bobbs-Merrill, hardcover, 1932. Pocket Book #204. paperback, 1943. Foul Play Press, trade paperback, 1989. Norton, trade paperback, 2005.

   The second appearance of Cape Cod’s most famous sleuth, Asey Mayo, is marked by a Wellfleet mansion being snowed in by a late March blizzard, with its owner found dead in the morning, of arsenic poisoning. Method: candles the wicks of which have been soaked in the stuff.

   Lots of suspects, no alibis, and part of the motive is half-witted at best. The detection is rudimentary, the third quarter sags badly, and you can’t keep track of the people involved without a scorecard. What this novel does have plenty of, however, is character.

–Reprinted from Mystery*File #18, December 1989, in slightly revised form.
REVIEWED BY BARRY GARDNER:


RON ELY – East Beach. Jake Sands #2. Simon & Schuster, hardcover, 1995. Worldwide, paperback, 1997.

   This is the same Ron Ely who played Tarzan. I haven’t read the first in the series, Night Shadows, but I read at least one review panning it. You never know, though.

   Jake Sands has just about healed from the physical and emotional injuries sustained in the last book, though he still grieves for the wife and family lost earlier still. He has no desire to get back into his old dangerous line of “work,” but fate is against him.

   He meets a beautiful young waitress while watching a beach volleyball game, and she promises to call him that night. She doesn’t, but he doesn’t think much about it — he really didn’t expect her to. A few days later he learns she was beaten and killed that night. Reluctantly he finds himself drawn deeper into finding out what happened to her, and more people die.

   I thought this was surprisingly good. It’s a standard loner-with-tragic-past-avenging wrongs type of book, but it’s well done and I liked the character. Ely has a good feel for Santa Barbara (he lives there) and the Southern California beach life.

   He tells his story first=person, and paces it well. There’s the usual problem of the police being ignored, but hell, Travis McGee did that, too. It comes with this kind of territory. This makes no pretensions to being anything other than an action/crime story, but if you like those I think you’ll like this.

— Reprinted from Ah Sweet Mysteries #17, January 1995.


Bibliographic Update:   There were only the two books in the Jake Sands series.

  FREDERICK NEBEL “Red Hot.” Jack Cardigan #27. Short story. Dime Detective, July 1, 1934. First collected in The Complete Casebook of Cardigan, Volume 3: 1934-35 (Altus Press, 2012). Reprinted in The Big Book of Female Detectives, edited by Otto Penzler (Black Lizard, 2018).

   Private eye Jack Cardigan appeared in some 44 hard-boiled tales published in Dime Detective Magazine between 1931 and 1937. Assisting him in many of his cases was Patricia Steward, sometimes in major ways. (I am not clear as to what her status actually was in the Cosmos Agency. Was she his secretary, or was she actually something more than that?)

   In “Red Hot,” Cardigan is hired by a client to find his nephew who left his family in bad standing, but now that his father has died, he is needed to be present for the reading of the will. Cardigan makes short work of finding the nephew, but the man flat out refuses to go back with his uncle.

   When Cardigan reports to the uncle, he assumes the man will confront his nephew directly, but the next morning Cardigan learns that the uncle has disappeared. Things happen very quickly from this point on, but not only is this a fast-moving story, it’s well plotted, too, ending in a most satisfactory fashion. (Many pulp yarns start off with a bang only to flag off badly at the end.)

   I read this one in the Penzler anthology, another giant doorstop of a book that’s well worth the money. I do question why this particular Cardigan story was used, though. Pat Steward is present throughout, but truth be told, besides being on hand to offer comfort to the nephew’s wife, she has very little to do.

REVIEWED BY DAN STUMPF:         


INVISIBLE GHOST. Monogram, 1941. Bela Lugosi, Polly Ann Young, John McGuire, Clarence Muse, and Betty Compson. Written by Helen Martin and Al Martin. Directed by Joseph H. Lewis.

   Not a good movie by any means, but a better one than you might expect, thanks to some subtle work at the margins by Director Lewis and writer Helen Martin.

   Reviewers who tackle this one describe the plot as indescribable, then go on and try to describe it, so instead of that, I’ll just give a quick description:

   As the story opens, Middle-aged Charles Kessler (The writers seem not to have noticed that Lugosi was Hungarian.) sits in his big lonely mansion, still pining for his absent wife (Compson) who ran off years ago with his best friend. It turns out though that she didn’t run very far; Bela’s bosom buddy was killed in a car crash that gave his wife (Betty Compson) amnesia, and for years she has secretly lived somewhere about the grounds, hidden and cared for by the gardener (?!) lo these many years.

   It also seems that from time to time the Mad Missus gets out of the cellar to go lurking around the yard, and whenever Kessler sees her, it puts him in a hypnotic trance and he gotta go out and kill somebody.

   Got that?

   Okay, so like I say, as the story starts there have been maybe a half-dozen murders in and around the Kessler Manse, and we get another one pretty quick – a maid who was once involved with Ralph (John McGuire), the boyfriend of Kessler’s daughter; surprisingly, the writers hint very subtly that she may have been pregnant with his child.

   At any rate, Kessler strangles her, Ralph gets convicted of her murder (Déjà-vu for McGuire, who suffered a similar fate in Stranger on the 3rd Floor the previous year.) and is executed, whereupon his twin brother (also McGuire) turns up chez Kessler to find out whodunit.

   At this point the writers have strained logic and credulity well beyond the breaking point, so I won’t detail any more plot, but I will say that there are glimmers of real creativity in this mess.

   Joseph H. Lewis was a director who could be counted on to add style to anything he worked on, from The Singing Outlaw (1937) to the legendary Gun Crazy (1950), and while he can’t do anything with the leaden illogic of the story, he throws in some flashy camera angles and lighting effects, and actually gets a very naturalistic performance out of Lugosi when he’s not killing anyone — I like Bela, but underplaying was never his forte.

   Even more remarkably marginal is the butler Evans, played by Clarence Muse. Muse was one of the few black actors of his time who brought dignity to every role he had, and he delivers it here with assurance. Whether chiding the (white) maid for gossiping about their employers, or just shooting a knowing look when the cops start interrogating him, he projects an intelligence far above the plot at hand.

   Part of this may have been the co-writing of Helen Martin. I haven’t been able to corroborate this, but IMDB identifies her as the same Helen Martin who helped found the American Negro Theater and appeared on Orson Welles’ stage production of Native Son before going on to a lengthy career as a character actress in films and television.

   This would fit. Clarence Muse himself was a Black Activist and helped found the Harlem Lafayette Theater about the same time Martin was working with Welles. And the writing and playing of his Black Servant part is far more intelligent and subtle than any other comparable part in the movies of its time.

   To see what I mean, you have only to consider the scene where he encounters John McGuire as the dead man’s twin and speculate on how skilled comic performers like Mantan Moreland or Willie Best would have handled it. Then look at how Muse does it: a subtle double-take, then he calmly announces the visitor, walks calmly to the kitchen and quietly asks the cook, ”Do I look pale?”

   Moments like this aren’t enough to keep Invisible Ghost from being a very bad film indeed, but they help make it a very memorable one anyway.

REVIEWED BY JONATHAN LEWIS:


WITCHCRAFT Lon Chaney

WITCHCRAFT. Lippert Films, 1964. Lon Chaney Jr., Jack Hedley, Jill Dixon, Viola Keats, Marie Ney. Director: Don Sharp.

   Although the plot is highly derivative – there are really no thematic elements you haven’t seen before in a Gothic horror film – Witchcraft is actually a strongly effective horror movie. Filmed in crisp black and white, the movie makes ample use of limited settings. In terms of its ability to delivery a general feeling of supernatural otherworldliness throughout the proceedings, this Lippert Films production certainly punches well above its weight.

WITCHCRAFT Lon Chaney

   In his final proper film role, Lon Chaney Jr. portrays Morgan Whitlock, patriarch of the enigmatic Whitlock clan. Rumor is that the Whitlocks are involved in witchcraft and have been for generations. Furthermore, legend has it that in the seventeenth-century, one of the Whitlock women was accused of being a witch and was subsequently buried alive. The main beneficiary of this act was the Lanier family that has since owned much of the Whitlock family estate.

WITCHCRAFT Lon Chaney

   So when, in the current era, Bill Lanier (Jack Hedley) begins plans to build a modern development on the Whitlock lands, it’s only a matter of time before the tension between the two families comes to a head. Unfortunately, Bill Lanier wasn’t careful enough in his instructions to the construction crew who, unbeknownst to him, bulldoze the Whitlock graveyard. That sounds bad in and of itself. It’s far worse when that act of recklessness frees Vanessa Whitlock (Yvette Rees), the accused witch from centuries ago, from her living tomb!

   Although the acting in Witchcraft is pretty much average with no standout performances, the cinematography is excellent. There’s also a pervasive feeling of weirdness that permeates the film, giving it an otherworldly quality. Much of this, I think, is probably due to Don Sharp’s direction. Although not widely known outside of horror film circles, Sharp was a director who made the most of what he had to work with.


PAUL BENJAMIN – Squeeze Play. Max Klein #1. Avon, paperback; 1st printing, March 1984. Penguin Books, paperback, 1990. First published by Alpha-Omega as a very scarce trade paperback in 1982.

   Ostensibly another baseball mystery, and as far as I know, the only case of PI Max Klein on record. Max’s client in this one, George Chapman, was once a superstar player, but he now has only one leg, and his new career in politics is about to be cut short by blackmail.

   So there’s none of the inside locker room stuff to report on as there was in Alison Gordon’s The Dead Pull Hitter [reviewed here ], but when Max takes his son to a game, what we do get is an avid fan’s view of what it’s like to be there in person. The rest of the story could have been trimmed by 20 percent, but every so often Max gets a good line off.

–Reprinted from Mystery*File #18, December 1989, in slightly revised form.


[UPDATE] 10-24-18.   This was, as I suspected back the, Max Klein’s only appearance. What I did not realize at the time that Paul Benjamin was a pen name for well-known and highly acclaimed author Paul Auster and that Squeeze Play was his first book.

   For a time the Avon paperback was generally assumed to be the first printing of the book, and when it was discovered to have been written by Auster, it was generally offered in the low three figures by book dealers. I sat at table next to such a dealer at one of Gary Lovisi’s NYC paperback shows where he had it priced at $200, but as I recall, no one even picked it up to look at, nor does it go for anywhere near that price now.

   On the other hand, the Alpha-Omega edition can easily set you back today a low four figure amount. Follow the link!

REVIEWED BY DAVID VINEYARD:


THE TWO FACES OF JANUARY. Magnolia Pictures, 2014. Viggo Mortensen, Kirstin Dunst, Oscar Isaac. Screenplay by Hossein Amini, based on the novel by Patrica Highsmith. Directed by Hossein Amini.

   Filmed on location in Greece and Turkey this handsome and intelligent suspense thriller based on a novel by Fort Worth-born suspense novelist Patrica Highsmith (Strangers on a Train, The Talented Mr. Ripley) is in a different key from most of today’s films. There are no car chases, monsters, or superheroes involved, nothing leaping out of the screen at you, and no gore, just human beings caught in their own webs of lies, deceit, and passions.

   Rydal (Oscar Isaac) is an American tour guide in Greece who finds himself attracted to sophisticated and wealthy American tourist Chester MacFarland (Viggo Mortensen) and his wife Colette (Kirstin Dunst) who befriend him after a day of visiting the sights in Crete. It seems like a brief flirtation for Rydal, but soon escalates into something more when he spies Chester trying to hide a body.

   MacFarland is an embezzler and his clients have hired a private detective to find him and bring him back to the States. When he kills the man, he is forced to enlist the naive Rydal to help hide the body and get them off the island and to Turkey with new papers, and Rydal, who has eyes for Dunst and is fascinated by Chester, agrees all too eagerly.

   Despite the handsome full color locations the film is more akin a film noir than a glitzy modern tale. The triangle between Rydal, Colette, and Chester is complex, with Rydal almost as seduced by the charismatic Chester as by the beautiful younger Colette.

   And of course things begin to unravel almost immediately. Tensions rise between the two men and between husband and wife, she is attracted to the younger man as her husband becomes more jealous, and soon the three are at each others throats.

   When a tragic accident occurs, Rydal finds himself even more implicated, and must betray Chester in order to keep his own neck out of a noose.

   As with most of Highsmith’s books and characters there are no easy answers or clear cut heroes or villains. There are degrees of guilt and innocence and shades of dark and light to all the characters. Colette was all too happy to go along with Chester so long as it was comfortable and there was money, Rydal all too eager to seduce another man’s wife and abet a murder, and Chester a victim of his own greed and desire for his younger wife. No one is innocent and no one fully guilty, all trapped by their own weakness and desire.

   The Two Faces of January is one of Highsmith best known novels and gets a handsome screen production here. That it might have been more taut in black and white in the era it was written for is more about our expectations for contemporary films than any real criticism of the film itself. As an intelligent dark exercise in modern noir that satisfies on all levels it is hard to find a flaw in it, and I haven’t seen any better examples of the form in recent years.

   The mid-section sags a bit, only because the director lingers a bit too long on the novelistic approach to developing the characters, but that is a small complaint about an intelligent suspense film of a type they really don’t make them like anymore.


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