Reviewed by JONATHAN LEWIS:         


UNDER CALIFORNIA STARS. Republic Pictures, 1948. Roy Rogers, Trigger, Jane Frazee, Andy Devine, George H. Lloyd, Wade Crosby, Michael Chapin. Director: William Witney.

   Don’t let the cowboy songs and the lighthearted Andy Devine comic antics deceive you. This William Witney-directed Roy Rogers movie isn’t entirely as innocent as you might think.

   In Under California Stars, Trigger is kidnapped and is nearly shot to death by a bunch of ornery horse traders. A criminal double-crosses his masters and, as payback for his deception, gets some lead in his chest. And Rogers aptly demonstrates that he can throw a mean punch or two, get scrappy in a fight, and roll in the dirt with the best of the brawlers, thanks in so small part to Witney’s excellent choreographing.

   But it’s not all mayhem in and around the Double R ranch. There are some fun characters too. Cookie Bullfincher (Devine) and his lovely cousin, Caroline (Jane Frazee) add a light touch to the story, as does Ted Carver (Michael Chapin), who portrays a young boy caught between his mean stepfather and his affection for Trigger.

   All told, this Roy Rogers movie is a better than average singing cowboy 1940s Western. Filmed in Trucolor, it’s definitely a step up from the lower grade black and white Western films from the same era. And you know what, the catchy title song, “Under California Stars,” isn’t all that bad, either.

Reviewed by JONATHAN LEWIS:         


THE CAT BURGLAR. United Artists, 1961. Jack Hogan, June Kenney, John Baer, Gregg Palmer, Will White, Gene Roth, Bruno VeSota. Screenwriter: Leo Gordon. Director: William Witney.

   The Cat Burglar doesn’t have the most unique plot, the best actors, or the greatest cinematography. But what it has going for it is atmosphere. An atmosphere of low-rent criminals, sleaze, and the type of world-weariness and despair you’d expect to find on the margins of polite society. Plus there’s a pretty great fight sequence in a warehouse at the end of the movie.

   Directed by William Witney, the story follows the tragic life of third, make that fourth, rate Southern California cat burglar Jack Coley (Jack Hogan). Coley gets more than he bargains for when he breaks into a woman’s apartment and steals a briefcase that contains – you guessed it – documents and papers that a foreign spy ring is more than eager to get their hands (and fists) on. As I said, it’s not the most unique plot.

   Witney’s direction takes us to the low-rent side of Los Angeles: a pawnshop, the broken down apartment of a criminal low-life fixer, Coley’s ratty garden apartment, and a warehouse filled with cardboard boxes. Coley is a tragic figure, a man who knows he’s really not a very good person. In the course of the film, he gets chewed out by his landlady and beaten to a bloody pulp. He also redeems himself at the very end, demonstrating to himself that his life hasn’t been a complete waste.

   All told, it’s a fairly bleak, albeit disconcertingly entertaining, little production. Part of this is due to the Buddy Bregman jazz soundtrack. Granted, it’s a bit unusual to have an early 1960s jazz sound to a taut, low budget crime thriller. But The Cat Burglar is, in many ways, a quite unusual film.

   Yes, the story doesn’t really make all that much sense or hold up to scrutiny all that well. But in a way, it really doesn’t matter. The film is less about the story, than it is about taking the viewer a cinematic sojourn through the frighteningly sleazy shadows of sun-baked Los Angeles. And with Witney at the helm, The Cat Burglar does that pretty darn well.

PEOPLE ON SUNDAY. Filmstudio Berlin, Germany, 1930. Originally released as Menschen am Sonntag. Erwin Splettstößer (taxi driver), Brigitte Borchert (record seller), Wolfgang von Waltershausen (wine seller), Christl Ehlers, (an extra in films), Annie Schreyer (model). Screenplay: Curt Siodmak, Robert Siodmak (source material), Edgar G. Ulmer, Billy Wilder. Cinematography: Eugen Schüfftan, Fred Zinnemann. Producers: Seymour Nebenzal & Edgar G. Ulmer. Directors: Kurt Siodmak, Robert Siodmak, Edgar G. Ulmer, Fred Zinnemann, Rochus Gliese (uncredited).

   Jon and I saw this a couple of nights ago as a restored print at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, introduced by Arianne Ulmer, Edgar Ulmer’s daughter, with live piano accompaniment by Michael Mortilla.

   It’s a long list of credits for a film with virtually no plot, and I’m not sure if anybody knows now who did what in putting the film together. It was a collaborative effort, or so I’m inclined to assume, with no studio backing, making this possibly the first “indy” film. The actors, as per the credits, played themselves as a group of friends and acquaintances who on a Sunday afternoon go to a park with a lake and bathing area in or near Berlin to spend the day together.

   Two men, two young ladies, and one wife or girl friend of one of the men who stays home in bed all day. They pair off, laugh, play, flirt, and go off in the woods together, but in this last instance, the pair in question are not necessarily the two who met at a train station the day before to set up the date for this particular Sunday.

   The next day it is back to work, but in the meantime we have a small time capsule of what life may have been for the working class in Germany before the small man with the mustache rose to power, lending a certain poignancy to the film that probably was not intended, although who knows, since I wasn’t there, it may have been.

   Watching this film feels at times as though someone is showing you a home movie, made with a small camera without sound, as many of my father’s family movies were made. And yet, despite a story line that is so flimsy as so nearly not exist, some of the filming techniques, the cutting of one scene to another, the angles of the shots and so on, foreshadow what was to come in the careers of those who created this film.

   Unhappily the men, who flirt with two other women in a boat on the lake right before the eyes of their dates for the day, are not very likeable, while the girls are pretty but not beautiful by any means. Brigitte Borchert, who is the blonde girl in the photos you see, died in 2011 at the age of 100, and this is the only film she made.

   As amateurs, the players play themselves very naturally, and perhaps this explains why their performances do not display the “overacting” that is so often associated with silent films.

   This is considered a classic movie by many sources, but in my opinion, only because of its historical significance in film making, not because it represents a giant leap in storytelling.

A 1001 MIDNIGHTS Review
by Francis M. Nevins


PHILIP ATLEE – The Green Wound. Gold Medal k1321, paperback original, 1963. Reprinted later as The Green Wound Contract, Gold Medal, paperback, 1967.

   Joseph Liam Gall’s first appearance in print was as a free-lance soldier of fortune embroiled in a Burmese civil war in Pagoda (1951), a hardcover adventure novel published under James Atlee Phillips’s full name. A dozen years later, writing as Philip Atlee, the author revived Gall, made him a disillusioned contract killer for the CIA, and put him through more than twenty paperback spy thrillers, of which the first and best was The Green Wound.

   The crime writer with whom Phillips seems to have the most in common is Raymond Chandler. Both men use a cinematically vivid first-person style (although Phillips avoids the profusions of metaphor and simile that make Chandler so easy to parody) and eschew careful plotting in favor of strong individual scenes and memorable moments.

   Almost all the Joe Gall novels suffer from near-chaotic structure, but Phillips’s finest scenes are so fresh and alive that, as Chandler said of Dashiell Hammett’s, they seem never to have been written before.

   Phillips’s treatment of his main character is a brilliant study in schizophrenia. On one level Gall is the stoic code hero of the Hemingway tradition, and on another he stems from Ian Fleming’s James Bond, the professional killer for his government, the larger-than-life secret agent forever besting villains of the mythological-monster sort.

   In the conventional patriotic thriller of this type, we are never allowed to doubt that whatever our side does is right because we are by definition the good guys. Phillips at his best subverts this nonsense and approaches the insight of John Le Carre that perhaps at bottom We and They are mirror images of each other.

   Witness,for instance, the story line of The Green Wound. Gall is paid a huge sum by his former bosses at the CIA to come out of idyllic semi-retirement in an Ozark castle, infiltrate a quiet Texas community, and frustrate a plot to ruin the politically connected millionaire who runs the city. From his vantage point as manager of the local country club, Gall dispassionately observes the viciousness of the ruling class and the institutionalized racism that keeps the blacks in a shantytown on the wrong side of the railroad tracks.

   In due course Gall learns that the blacks have secretly organized, with the help of federal civil-rights enforcers, to register to vote at the last possible minute and then oust the white politicians at the polls. On Election Day a bloody race war erupts, leaving the city in flames. Later Gall pursues the instigator of the revolt, a horribly disfigured black veteran who was used by army doctors as an experimental animal and is aching for revenge on the entire power structure.

   The action swings from Mexico to Texas to New Orleans to the Caribbean and back again, but Phillips never resolves the tension between Gall the good soldier and Gall the man who knows he’s on the wrong side. This tension, rather than its considerable virtues as an action thriller, is what makes The Green Wound one of the finest spy novels ever written by an American.

   In most of the later Galls, Phillips downplays or eliminates the structural schizophrenia, and the lesser exploits overstress local color and exotic settings — Sweden, Tahiti, Thailand, Haiti, British Columbia, Korea, and elsewhere — at the expense of story and action. But even the weaker Phillips novels are usually redeemed by several powerful individual scenes that stick in the memory long after the book as a whole is forgotten.

         ———
   Reprinted with permission from 1001 Midnights, edited by Bill Pronzini & Marcia Muller and published by The Battered Silicon Dispatch Box, 2007.   Copyright © 1986, 2007 by the Pronzini-Muller Family Trust.

Note:   Posted earlier on this blog was a comprehensive overview of the Joe Gall series by George Kelley, including a complete checklist. Check it out here.

   Besides the large number of comments left in response to George’s article, additional replies by David Vineyard and Mark Lazenby appear in a later post of their own. You may find it here.

REVIEWED BY DAN STUMPF:         


THE LONG WAIT. United Artists, 1954. Anthony Quinn, Charles Coburn, Gene Evans, Peggie Castle, Mary Ellen Kay, Shawn Smith, Dolores Donlon. Based on the book by Mickey Spillane. Director: Victor Saville.

   Victor Saville’s film of The Long Wait from the novel by Mickey Spillane, is an action-packed but mostly banal affair, bucked up somewhat by Anthony Quinn as a hard-boiled amnesiac who loses his fingerprints and memory in a fiery car crash that opens the thing.

   Wandering back to his home town, he finds himself wanted for an old murder by the local cops, and definitely unwanted by the local crooks, who find his presence somehow threatening to Organized Crime thereabouts. Indeed, the only ones with a friendly interest in Quinn are a half-dozen beautiful women who — because this is a Spillane story — fling themselves at him, knees akimbo, and — because this is a 50s movie — take him up to their apartments and dance with him.

   The story proceeds mostly by-the-numbers, competent but unremarkable, helped along by vigorous thesping from the likes of Charles Coburn, Gene Evans and Bruno VeSota as the sweatiest henchman in film noir.

   Anthony Quinn, who cut his acting teeth playing small-time hoods in Paramount “B” movies, brings a mean-spirited panache to the goings-on, and then…

   … and then for some reason there are five minutes in The Long Wait of pure, sadistic brilliance: A protracted execution, set in an abandoned warehouse, with harsh lights, minimal sets and camerawork that spreads like an expressionist dream across the screen as Gene Evans taunts and toys with his bound victims until….

   But that would be spoiling things. Suffice it to say that The Long Wait may be a more descriptive title than the producers intended, but it’s definitely worth the time.

Reviewed by JONATHAN LEWIS:         


MR. NICE GUY. A Raymond Chow/Golden Harvest Production, Hong Kong, 1997; first released as Yat goh ho yan. New Line Cinema, US, 1998 (dubbed). Jackie Chan, Richard Norton, Miki Lee, Karen McLymont, Gabrielle Fitzpatrick. Director: Sammo Kam-Bo Hung.

   I don’t think it’s going out on a limb for me to state that one usually doesn’t watch Jackie Chan movies for the intricate plots and captivating dialogue. No. One watches them for their action sequences, superbly timed humor, and their extraordinarily well-choreographed martial arts moments.

   It’s also very difficult not to like Jackie Chan as both a performer and as a person. He seems, well, like a nice guy.

   In Mr. Nice Guy, Jackie trades on that persona and portrays a fictionalized version of himself as a Melbourne-based television cooking show host. But it doesn’t take too long into the film to realize that he’s agile both with the kitchen utensils and with his fists.

   The story follows Jackie’s chivalrous attempts to protect both a television newswoman and his girlfriend from a drug cartel and a street gang. In a somewhat ludicrous plot device, Jackie accidentally ends up with a videocassette that depicts a drug deal gone awry between the two aforementioned criminal elements. The tape falls into the hands of the grandchildren of his co-host. Oh, and guess what? His co-host’s son just happens to be a cop.

   You can see where this is heading.

   But as I said at the outset, one doesn’t watch movies like this for the plot.

   It’s all about the action, the fights, the stunts, and the sheer excitement of watching Jackie Chan punch, kick, and swing his way around Melbourne’s city streets, construction sites, and apartment blocks. It’s a great, thrilling ride from beginning to end. There are some particularly amazing stunt sequences, including a lengthy chase on an apartment building top and another in a half-constructed building.

   Mr. Nice Guy isn’t a movie you need to think a lot about. It’s just a lot of fun. Look for the cameo of the Hong Kong New Wave director, Sammo Hung, as a bicycle courier. It’s a great little scene in a great little action film.

THE BACKWARD REVIEWER
William F. Deeck


WILLIAM DAVID SPENCER – Mysterium and Mystery: The Clerical Crime Novel. UMI Research Press, hardcover, 1989, 344 pp., $49.95. Southern Illinois Press, softcover, 1992.

   Perhaps I should start with a disclaimer: my theology, such as it is — or, sadly more accurately, was — was gained from nuns at a parochial school. Now that I can look back on it with detachment, they were dear ladies but woefully inadequate in their understanding of religion. Any questions not covered in the catechism were met with “Never mind” or disappointed looks or mitigated horror.

   Thus, my understanding of Spencer’s chapter on “Modus Operandi: Mysterium into Mystery” is at best suspect, at worst completely befuddled. But I didn’t get the book so that I could learn theology; I got it to read about clerical detectives and their theology.

   Spencer says — and I have no disagreement with him — that the clerical crime novel may be divided into three classifications. The most general, he says, is any tale that involves the clergy and crime. This type of novel involves “saintly side-kicks” — “as in Jack Webb’s or Thurmin [sic] Warriner’s tales or in a lesser sense in Christopher Leach’s Blood Games or Dorothy Salisbury Davis’s Where the Dark Streets Go.”

   The second division is the novel in which a crime is committed by a cleric. Spencer provides several examples, though not the most unusual one, which I can’t name since to do so would be to give away whodunit.

   Finally, and the focus of this book, are the mysteries solved by the cleric. Part One of Spencer’s treatise is “Rabbis and Robbers,” dealing with two tales from the Apocrypha and with the novels of Harry Kemelman. Although Spencer lists Joseph Telushkin in his “Graph of the Clerical Crime Novel in English,” Rabbi David Winter is not dealt with in this study.

   Part Two is “Priests and Psychopaths,” the Roman Catholic clergy, both ordained and nonordained — in the latter case the various nuns and brothers.

   Part Three is “Ministers and Murders” — yes, as you may have gathered, Spencer does have a thing for alliteration, even when it can be somewhat misleading- representing the various Protestant clergy.

   How well does Spencer sum up the clergy characters and their theology? Quite well, I believe, in those cases in which I have read at least one of the books by an author. The only authors I haven’t read are Barbara Ninde Byfield, whom I hope to get around to shortly, and James L. Johnson, who wrote the Code Name Sebastian Series, a series, after reading Spencer’s descriptions of the novels, I feel I can skip without any loss. (Oh, all right, I merely started The Name of the Rose. Some people, I am informed, have read, enjoyed, and understood it, though I am dubious whether any one person did all three.)

   Keep in mind, of course, that Spencer is not rating the clergy characters as detectives or the novels as detective tales; he is dealing with the books as to how they reflect the characters’ theology or, in one case, the near absence of it.

   Errors? If you get as upset as I do over the misuse of “flaunt” for “flout,” you’d join me in considering that a mistake. Otherwise, except for his curious notion that Eco’s William of Baskerville chewed tobacco in fourteenth-century Europe, Spencer is, as far as I could tell, quite accurate in depicting plot and character.

   Oversights? The only clergy detective not dealt with that I know of is the Reverend Peter Eversleigh, sometimes called the Padre, featured in several of Richard Goyne’s novels. This Protestant clergyman detective seems to have been overlooked by all who have published lists of religious sleuths. Since in the one novel I have read in which the Padre appears there is nothing about theology, perhaps no great loss has been suffered from lack of knowledge about him. The Lipstick Clue (Paul, 1954) is, however, a rather decent novel of detection.

   Is Mysterium and Mysteries a fair value at $49.95? I paid that price, and I feel it was worth it. After all, there is a fair amount of information about clerical detectives as detectives but very little about their theology. Dedicated fans of the Divine Mystery, or Holy Terror, or the clerical crime novel, or whatever you want to call it, probably should own this study. Others should suggest that their public library acquire it.

— Reprinted from The MYSTERY FANcier, Vol. 12, No. 1, Winter 1990.


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