REVIEWED BY JONATHAN LEWIS:


MURDERS IN THE RUE MORGUE. American International Pictures, 1971. Jason Robards, Herbert Lom, Christine Kaufmann, Adolfo Celi, Maria Perschy, Michael Dunn, Lilli Palmer. Screenwriters: Christopher Wicking & Henry Slesar, based on the story by Edgar Allan Poe. Director: Gordon Hessler.

   When adapting what many critics consider to be the original modern detective story to film, there’s a temptation to do so in a manner that adheres too closely to the original text.

   That’s definitely not a problem for Gordon Hessler’s Murders in the Rue Morgue, a film that’s so anarchic in spirit that it ends up little resembling Edgar Allan Poe’s locked door mystery. Borrowing as much from The Phantom of the Opera (1943) as from Poe’s tale, this uneven, but still enjoyable, American International production blends gothic horror, an early 1970s Paella Western aesthetic, and a sly commentary on the demarcations between the profession of acting and living in “real life.” The movie also benefits a rather unique score by the Argentine composer and conductor, Waldo de los Ríos.

   The plot revolves around an early twentieth-century Parisian theater troupe of the Grand Guignol variety. Led by the mercurial Cesar Charron (Jason Robards), the troupe includes a myriad of colorful members. In the midst of their theatrical run of a stage adaptation of Poe’s eponymous story, Charron finds that his cast and crew, both former and present, are being targeted for murder.

   It’s only when the bodies start piling up that Charron begins to suspect that his former friend and rival, Rene Marot (Herbert Lom) is behind the horrific killings. Thing is: Marot is believed to be dead, having taken his own life after murdering Cesar’s wife’s, Madeline’s (Christine Kauffman) mother (Lilli Palmer) with an axe.

   At the end of the day, however, it’s not the convoluted murder mystery plot that makes Murders in the Rue Morgue worth watching. Rather, the film is more an exercise in style and reflective of a certain type of Gothic horror cinema, one in which dreams, flashbacks, and hallucinatory sojourns play important roles in elucidating how the characters’ pasts and presents converge in tragic ways. The movie’s not a horror classic and doesn’t hold up very well when compared with Roger Corman’s Poe films, but it’s the product of a certain type of daring that was a hallmark of 1970s commercial cinema.

DAN RAVEN “The High Cost of Living.” NBC, 20 September 1960; 60 minutes. Cast: Skip Homeier (Lt. Dan Raven), Dan Barton (Det. Sgt. Burke), Quinn K. Redeker. Guest Cast: Bobby Darin, Corey Allen, Richard Carlyle, Sue Ane Langdon. Director: Joseph M. Newman.

   There is seriously conflicting information about this series online. Wikipedia says that the series began as a 30 minute program on January 23, 1960, and expanded to 60 minutes on September 23, whereas IMDb suggests that that was the date of the first program altogether. If the latter is correct, the episode I’ve just watched is Episode 1 of Season 1.

   The setting of this fairly standard black and white police procedural is Los Angeles, and Hollywood’s famed Sunset Strip in particular. The extra gimmick, at least for this part of the run, is to have famous actors, actresses and other celebrities play themselves in leading roles in dramatized versions of scrapes they might get into. (From the preview provided at the end of this one, the next episode starred Buddy Hackett.)

   Bobby Darin is framed for murder in this one, and it’s a fairly flimsy setup at that — his photo is found at the scene of the crime in a smashed frame (hmm) and a charred piece of notepaper is discovered in the fireplace with the name Bobby on it, paper from the club where he works.

   I didn’t keep track, but Darin also gets to sing at least two songs. There’s also an old friend of his hanging around town would could provide an alibi for him, if he could only be found. I’m not sure the plotting is at all airtight, but I don’t imagine anyone at the time was going to ask for their money back if it wasn’t.

   Skip Homeier had nearly a 40 year career in movies and TV, and while he never became a star, he did make a successful transition from child actor to at least a busy one as an adult. In this single episode of Dan Raven I’ve seen, he reminded me a bit of Lee Marvin, maybe better looking, but without the latter’s overwhelming onscreen charisma.

THE BACKWARD REVIEWER
William F. Deeck


CHARLES LEE SWEM – Werewolf. Doubleday Doran/Crime Club, hardcover, 1928.

   Invited to Thistlewood, former sanitarium in New Jersey and now home to what is left of the Thistlestanc family and its odd retinue, David Lee hears the howl of a wolf and witnesses the fear of his former college roommate, Dick Thistlestane. As his visit ends, Dick asks Lee to look after his teenage sister, Jane, if anything should happen to him.

   Something does happen: Dick is ostensibly killed by his German shepherd. Convinced that the dog would not have attacked his master, Lee returns to protect the girl and discovers the family curse. Roughly, for the curse is a complex one, fifty years earlier the mother of a young man accused of being a werewolf and executed told the Thistlestanes that the real werewolf would come and kill the members of the family.

   Thistlestanes died then — and have died since — strangled by teethmarks. (Well, that’s what the book says; don’t blame me if it doesn’t make sense.)

   The author of this only mystery, for which fact we can all be grateful, was secretary to Woodrow Wilson for many years. Since Wilson enjoyed mysteries, Swem chose to write one. It’s tolerably written, to be overly kind, but the denouement is nonsense that also possesses gaping holes. Knowing what I know about Wilson, I suspect he would have found it engrossing.

— Reprinted from MYSTERY READERS JOURNAL, Vol. 6, No. 4, Winter 1990, “Beastly Murders.”

REVIEWED BY BARRY GARDNER:


TIMOTHY HALLINAN – Incinerator. Simeon Grist #4. William Morrow, hardcover, 1992. Avon, paperback, 1993.

   I think I like Hallinan’s books a little more with each one. A couple more and he’ll move into my personal top ten.

   Someone is dowsing LA’s derelicts with gasoline and incinerating them. Grist is hired by the wealthy daughter of the latest victim to find the killer, and then blindsided by a press release she issues. He very nearly quits the case the next day, after receiving a personal, hand-delivered note from the killer at his home. He is persuaded by the client and the police to continue; the police, who the client believes have done little until now to solve the case, think that Grist may furnish the only link to the killer that offers hope.

   Reluctantly, he acquiesces, and enters into a shaky “partnership” with the LAPD and their psychiatrist; enforced by the client’s threat to go public with the whole mess if the police fail to cooperate.

   The story sustains an unusual amount of tension as Grist and his unwilling and less than dependable allies try to identify the killer before he incinerates others, Grist included. If a spur were needed, it becomes apparent that the killer knows Grist personally. Grist wishes it were reciprocal.

   The overeducated Simeon Grist — four degrees from UCLA — is one of the better-delineated and least clone-like PI’s of recent years. The killer is believable, and scary. Hallinan is an excellent writer, with a smooth narrative flow and good ear for dialogue. I think this is one of the better private detective tales of 1992.

— Reprinted from Fireman, Fireman, Save My Books #5, January 1993.


       The Simeon Grist series —

1. The Four Last Things (1989)
2. Everything but the Squeal (1990)

3. Skin Deep (1991)
4. Incinerator (1992)
5. The Man with No Time (1993)
6. The Bone Polisher (1995)

   In more recent years, Hallinan has written seven adventures of Poke Rafferty, an American expatriate living in Bangkok, and six cases for Junior Bender, an ex-burglar turned PI for LA mobsters.

ISIS. “The Lights of Mystery Mountain.” CBS, Season 1, Episode 1. 6 September 1975. The series was known as The Secrets of Isis in syndication. Cast: JoAnna Cameron (Andrea Thomas/Isis), Brian Cutler (Rick Mason), Joanna Pang (Cindy Lee). Guest Cast: Kelly Thordsen, Hank Brandt, Ken Wolger, Mike Maitland. Developed by Marc Richards. Director: Hollingsworth Morse.

   Opening narration: “… a young science teacher dug up this lost treasure and found that she was heir to the secrets of Isis. And so, unknown even to her closest friends, Rick Mason and Cindy Lee, she became a dual person: Andrea Thomas, teacher; and Isis, dedicated foe of evil, defender of the weak, champion of truth and justice!”

   According to Wikipedia, this Saturday morning TV series has the distinction of being “the first weekly, American, live-action television series with a female superhero lead character.” Although intended for kids, rumor has it that quite a few adults watched it, too. The star, Joanna Cameron was a former model with nice legs and as Isis, wore a very short white miniskirt. That may have had something to do with it.

   In this first episode, Cindy Lee has taken photos up in the mountains of what appear to be UFOs, and she, Andrea and Rick decide to investigate further. Upon arrival they discover that several people have disappeared, leaving only circles of scorched earth behind them.

   The story is paper thin, the special effects are minimal, and the action level is even less. Being a kids’ program, there’s a lesson to be learned by the two teen-aged boys who have helped the person behind this small semi-sinister plot. It’s all in good fun, and I’m sure anyone who watched this series back then still remembers it today.

MARC DAVIS – Dirty Money. Dell, paperback original; 1st printing, February 1992.

   This is the author’s only work of crime fiction, a one-shot private eye novel taking place in Chicago. The PI in question is a fellow named Frank Wolf, and since by profession Marc Davis was a commodities broker with that city’s Board of Trade, it’s not surprising that most of the underlying plot has to do with the selling of wheat, soybeans, silver, mortgages and the like.

   Although hardly a broker himself, Wolf does have a serious gambling problem, the consequences of which form part of the underlying story line. The dead man was a broker, though, someone Wolf had known since grade school — one of the high-living people who can’t resist the thrill of taking risks. It’s just that he was a success at it– until, that is, he did someone enough wrong as to do him in.

   This is one of those stories in which the lowly PI falls in love with the dead man’s daughter, the consequences of which also forms part of the underlying story line. This is also one of those stories which are overwritten, in my opinion, in both the opening and closing chapters. It’s the middle section that flows the easiest, in more or less standard PI style, this making this a book worth picking up, should you ever find yourself face to face with a copy, out there somewhere in the wild, as recently happened to me.

LOVE, CHEAT & STEAL. Showtime, 1993. John Lithgow, Eric Roberts, Mädchen Amick, Richard Edson, Donald Moffat, Dan O’Herlihy. Screenwriter/director: William Curran.

   There are some bits and jots of a good film noir story here, along with a bank heist that goes bad — don’t they all in movies like this? — but the pieces didn’t really jell for me. I believe this movie, which I taped off the Showtime movie channel back in 1993, is also available on DVD, but if you want my advice, in spite of some good reviews left by commenters on IMDb, I don’t believe you want to shell out a lot of money for it.

   Here’s a quick outline of the story, or as quick as I can make it. John Lithgow is an older man with a young attractive wife (Madchen Amick), the basis of plenty of good stories already. It turns out, though, that she was once married to a nogoodnik (Eric Roberts) whom she failed to get a divorce from after making sure he was safely in jail. He has now broken out and is coming to find her.

   It also turns out that Lithgow’s father’s bank has been used as a money laundering way station. The men overseeing everyday operations have been working hand-in-hand with the local gang of drug crime lords. Roberts is appropriately slimy — he introduces himself to Lithgow as Amick’s brother — and what can she day to stop him?

   She’s caught in middle, in other words. Does she love Lithgow, or is she really interested only in his money? Is she still attracted to Roberts, her real husband? I will not tell you, but even with the aforementioned bank heist that goes bad, not really interesting happens until the end, which is worth waiting for, but until then the tale is only indifferently — and often confusingly — told.

   A better femme fatale may have helped. In daylight Madchen Amick is quite pretty if not really strikingly beautiful, but indoors and in bad light, she is so physically tiny that the darkness seems to simply swallow her up.

   I would like to go back and see how well the ending — which is a doozy — actually fits, but all in all, one time only is the limit I’ve restricted myself to for this one.

REVIEWED BY DAN STUMPF:


PETER RABE – Stop This Man! Gold Medal #506, paperback original, 1955. Reprinted by Gold Medal at least twice. Hard Case Crime #58, paperback, 2009.

   For reasons best known to themselves, Gold Medal packaged Peter Rabe’s Stop This Man! to look like one of their rustic melodramas — “I couldn’t put this book down!” says Erskine Caldwell, author of God’s Little Acre — when in fact it’s a savvy, mostly urban tale of a robbery and its aftermath that prefigures the best of Westlake/Stark’s “Parker” novels.

   Catell, the more-or-less hero of the piece, is a career criminal very much in the tough, calculating Parker mold, before there was a Parker mold to fit into, and Stop This Man! deals with his efforts to get away with a brick of radioactive gold and somehow dispose of it at a profit.

   Rabe knows how to do this thing right: straight-up and savage, with that paperback toughness that typifies the best of the hard-boiled writers. The action scenes are fast and inventive, the characters engagingly seedy, and the plot controlled and energetic as a racehorse.

   If there’s any problem at all, it lies in the mood of the times, when an informal censorship mandated that Justice Must Triumph in this sort of thing, and Rabe is clearly more interested in his small-time hoods, strippers, lushes and oily promoters than in the lawmen who put in token appearances like time-out-for-a-word-from-our-sponsor.

   The result is a rather contrived ending, but it comes late in a book that is mostly pretty enjoyable.

JOHN BIRKETT – The Last Private Eye. Avon, paperback original; 1st printing, March 1988.

   Even if you’re a diehard private eye fan as far as your reading material is concerned, I’m sure that you’ll have to admit that, well, some of the books you read are better than others. This one’s a case in point.

   The Last Detective is the first of two recorded adventures of Louisville PI Michael Rhineheart, the second being The Queen’s Mare (Avon, 1990), both being nominated for Shamus Awards by the MWA in the category of Best Paperback Original PI Novel.

   Birkett has a nice breezy style of writing that goes a long way in disguising the fact that there isn’t much here that you haven’t read before, unless this is the first PI novel you’ve ever read. Rhineheart has a secretary who is not very good at typing but who wants to go out assisting him on cases instead; he has a former mentor in the PI business, now an aging old man who shows up on this case just when he’s needed most.

   Along the way Rhineheart plays with fire and falls in love with the wife of one the more important men in town. When he’s clobbered on the back of the head after he finds a source lying dead in her room, he’s up and around the next day, just fine. He’s offered a high-powered job in the state capital if he would be so kind as to close down his agency, but he turns it down. On the other hand, his client is the one who backs down when the going gets tough.

   What else? Let me tell you. He works out of Louisville, Derby Day is coming up soon, one of the rich guys in town is obsessed with winning the thing — the one with the wife — and the fellow Rhineheart is hired to find is a low level stable guy whose trail leads to a locker in which he finds a hypodermic syringe and a residue of brand new unidentifiable chemical substance.

   What do you think?

   Don’t get me wrong. The book is fun to read, and there is an interesting twist or two toward the end. Overall though, I wouldn’t recommend going out of your way to find this one — not very far, that is.

Reviewed by JONATHAN LEWIS:         


TERROR IS A MAN. Valiant Films, 1959. Re-released as Blood Creature. Francis Lederer, Greta Thyssen, Richard Derr, Oscar Keesee, Lilia Duran. Screenplay: Harry Paul Harber, based on the novel The Island of Dr. Moreau by H.G. Wells (uncredited). Co-directors: Gerardo de Leon (as Gerry de Leon) & Eddie Romero.

   The long shadow of H. G. Wells’ The Island of Dr. Moreau hangs over the incredibly bleak Filipino-American film Terror is a Man (aka Blood Creature). Produced in stark black and white, the movie feels more like a late 1930s or early 1940s horror film than one made at the tail end of the 1950s. This is a film that, with modifications, could have just as easily been made by John Brahm at the height of his creative output.

   Co-produced by Eddie Romero, the esteemed Filipino director whose vast corpus of work includes of a series of English-language exploitation and horror films in the 1970s, Terror is a Man features Francis Lederer in a leading role. He portrays Dr. Charles Girard, a mad scientist clearly inspired by Wells’ eponymous Dr. Moreau. He’s a man guided by both a zealous quest for knowledge and a desire to create a new kind of man, one unburdened by the effects of natural evolution. Indeed, his quest is not, in itself, malicious. Rather, it is a noble quest, but one that deliberately goes against the laws of nature.

   The plot of the movie is rather straightforward. William Fitzgerald (Richard Derr) is an American sailor who washes up on a South Pacific island. His ship went down and he’s the only survivor. It’s up to Dr. Charles Girard and his beautiful blonde wife (Greta Thyssen) to make a home for the stranded Fitzgerald.

    It doesn’t take long for our intrepid sailor to discover that there’s a panther on the loose on the island. He soon discovers that Dr. Girard’s experiments have something to do with the panther’s lethal behavior and – oh yes – that the panther may actually be a man!

   All of the tension that’s built up during the exceedingly talky first hour of the film ultimately comes to a series of catastrophic and violent clashes between the panther-man and the main characters. If the movie could be faulted for anything, it’s that it takes a little too long for any real action to occur. But when it does, it’s handled skillfully and with a genuine sense of impending doom.

   All told, Terror is a Man is a better horror movie than you might expect. True, the movie feels a little slow going at times and it wears its message of not tinkering with the laws of nature on its sleeve. But it’s much better than a lot of the American horror movies released at the time, particularly those derivative productions that blended horror with science fiction and atom age anxieties.

   What makes Terror is a Man a true horror film, as opposed to a work of science fiction, is that the real beast in the movie isn’t the panther-man, but his creator. Recommended for those viewers who don’t mind an occasionally stagey production and especially for admirers of Francis Lederer as a leading actor.

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