Wed 20 Mar 2013
Reviewed by Dan Stumpf (Book/Film): VICTOR CANNING – The House of the Seven Flies / The House of the Seven Hawks (1959).Posted by Steve under Action Adventure movies , Reviews
VICTOR CANNING – The House of the Seven Flies. Hodder & Stoughton, UK, hardcover, 1952. Mill-Morrow, US, hardcover, 1952. Berkley #F730, US, paperback reprint, 1963.
THE HOUSE OF THE SEVEN HAWKS. MGM, UK, 1959. Robert Taylor, Nicole Maurey, Linda Christian, Donald Wolfit, David Kossoff, Eric Pohlmann. Screenwriter: Jo Eisinger, based on the novel The House of the Seven Flies, by Victor Canning. Director: Richard Thorpe.
Victor Canning’s THE HOUSE OF THE SEVEN FLIES (Morrow, 1952) has intrigued me for various and sundry reasons since I came across it in my late teens, but I should tell you for starters, it’s pretty much a generic adventure/crime novel of its time, with little to distinguish it from a dozen others.
The story opens in 1944 with some Nazi big-wig looting valuable jewels from a Dutch bank—or trying to; the boat he’s leaving in gets sunk in the canals near a city called Veere and the treasure is lost forever.
Yeah (as they say) right.
The story picks up again in 1952 with Roger Furse, an American ex-serviceman now operating a charter boat in the North of England. Like any hero in this sort of thing, Roger’s a straightforward guy, but he’s not above bending the law a bit, so when a Dutchman who chartered the boat for a bit of coastal mucking about offers him extra to take him across the North Sea to the Dutch town of Veere, Roger doesn’t need much persuading. But when the Dutchman dies (mysteriously, but apparently of natural causes) Roger decides he should make sure he’s not carrying anything incriminating, goes through the man’s baggage and finds (you guessed it) a map to the “lost” treasure.
Whereupon Canning rounds up the usual complications: a cute-perky-bouncy young lady who was working with the Dutchman to recover the loot; a lugubrious police detective who tells Furse that his passenger was murdered before he ever got on board, victim of a slow poison; a showy crook with an entourage of nasty thugs, and a lovely femme fatale-type who may have killed the Dutchman.
Having assembled his cast, Canning puts them through the usual paces: Furse and the cute girl fall in love; the Dutch cop plods patiently; the showy crook offers bribes and threats; his hired nasties get tough, and the femme tries seduction. We get a couple of chases (well-handled, I must admit) a couple fights (likewise) and some sea-going stuff that Canning handles particularly well, all capped by the usual ending.
Okay so the first thing that intrigues me about this book is the title; who-the-hell would call a book THE HOUSE OF THE SEVEN FLIES? Who would publish anything with a title that connotes dull classics and household pests? Who did they think was going to buy anything labeled THE HOUSE OF THE SEVEN FLIES? I mean I wrote a book a couple years ago called EASY DEATH, and I have an eight-page list of publishers and agents who won’t even look at it, so how does Canning put out a book with a title like that?
Well in point of fact, Morrow published it and it was bought by no less than MGM, who packaged it as a medium-budget flick for their declining star Robert Taylor in 1959, adapted by Jo Eisinger and directed by that reliable workhorse Richard Thorpe. Just a few years earlier, Thorpe and Taylor had worked together on big-budget extravaganzas like IVANHOE and KNIGHTS OF THE ROUND TABLE, but here they were clearly just treading water.
For most of its length, THE HOUSE OF THE SEVEN HAWKS (as they wisely re-titled it) is as undistinguished a movie as the book was a book. Except for Taylor, there are no big stars or even any memorable character actors. The chase scenes and sea-going stuff are jettisoned for reasons of economy, and the stunt work in the fights could be charitably described as duller than ditchwater. Yet HAWKS stayed in my memory for years, and I don’t know whether to blame Director Thorpe or Writer Eisinger — or to praise them.
The thing is this: about 20 minutes in, HAWKS segues into a fugue from THE MALTESE FALCON; Taylor (now named John Nordley for some reason!) is approached by an effeminate little perfumed man with a cane who works for a fat, loquacious boss associated with a lying femme fatale. Big chunks of dialogue are ripped from FALCON, with the fat man AND Taylor bluffing about what they need to find out, and later Taylor tells the femme what a good actress she is … then they kiss and he sees the fat man’s henchman outside the window, just as in FALCON.
Like I say, I don’t know who was responsible for this wholesale rip-off/homage, but it’s worth remembering that Thorpe once re-shot the 1937 PRISONER OF ZENDA scene for scene. Whatever the case, when I saw this on Network TV back in the late 60s, before videotapes, DVD or even Turner Classic Movies, the blast from a classic seemed delightfully amusing.
Or at least it made the film a little less forgettable.