“POSSESSION.” An episode of Thriller, ATV, England, 21 April 1973. (Series 1, Episode 2.) John Carson, Joanna Dunham, Hilary Hardiman, Athol Coats, James Cossins, Richard Aylen. Story: Brian Clemens. Director: John Cooper.

   An all-British cast this time — recall that Barbara Feldon co-starred in the first episode, “Lady Killer,” reviewed here — and instead of being an out-and-out Alfred Hitchcockian crime story, this one borders on the supernatural.

   But of course, it’s a crime story as well, with a newly married couple in their new home — an isolated manor, of course — with the body of the previous owner found cemented over in the basement. When the female half of the married couple starts hearing whistling in the house at odd hours, mostly during the night, and the rooms ransacked while the two of them are in bed and the doors tightly locked, that’s when they call in a mystic, who helps them hold a seance, with even more deadly consequences.

   I’m sorry that that last sentence was such a long one, but it happens sometimes. I’m not overly fond of ghost stories, but if I’m going to watch one, the British do them best. I’m not sure why, but England is a country that for some reason, ghosts seem to find a likelier place to not find a final resting place than the US.

   Adding to general overall spookiness of the proceedings is the lighting, very effectively done, plus a very minimal musical score, often non-existent while the camera work focuses on a rack of knives in the kitchen, a set of rickety stairs leading to the dimly lit basement, and of course the whistling coming from seemingly nowhere.

   It is the male half of the couple who is seemingly possessed (John Carson, who sounds a lot like James Mason), while it is left to his wife (the beautiful Joanna Dunham) to look concerned, then worried, then out-and-out frightened. Not everyone leaves this story alive, nor is the ending convincing that all things supernatural in the tale have been entirely explained away (deliberately so).

   Nicely done.

DONALD HAMILTON – The Interlopers. Gold Medal T2073, paperback original; 1st printing, 1969. Reprinted several times.

   It’s been a while since I’ve read one of Matt Helm’s adventures. When they first came out, I used to gobble them down like cotton candy, but for some reason, I don’t remember this one. It came out the year my wife and I moved from Michigan to Connecticut, and I starting teaching here, so quite possibly I had other things on my mind.

   This one is number twelve in a series of 27 books that started with Death of a Citizen in 1960. In my opinion now, I don’t believe that it’s one of the better ones, but a less-than-average Donald Hamilton book is still far above the average other spy or espionage thriller of the day.

   I’m not exactly sure why this particular adventure never quite took off for me. Helm is his usual competent hard-boiled self, telling his own story, killing the bad guys with no sense of remorse, either part of the job or kill or be killed. He is also quite willing to bed any lady who offers, even if he is not sure which side she is on.

   And there are several sides to be on in this novel. As an assignment on behalf of another government agency to pose as a courier for Russians to foil a plot against the defense systems of the west coast of the US, Helm is confused by a group of amateur but still deadly interlopers who do not seem to be on either his side or the Russians. And the aforementioned lady is on either his side (his boss says no), or the Russians from whom she has defected (or so she says), or or she’s playing a different hand altogether (my thoughts on the matter).

   Part of the problem is that the setting is not all that interesting: traveling through Canada from Washington state to Alaska, not the most exotic of locales. Or it may be that the plot the Russians have come up with is so lame: along the way Helm is to meet five different contacts (complete with secret identifying phrases), with the info he so gathers to be inserted in the studs on the Labrador puppy Helm is required to take along with him.

   The title is appropriate. There are many interlopers in this story, and Helm is rightfully disdainful as to their abilities as largely out-and-out amateurs. Not an amateur, though, is the Russian assassin that Helm’s own boss has asked him to eliminate. It all makes for a very large pot of characters, but it takes a long time for things to come to a boil.

PostScript:   Since Matt Helm tells his own story, it was difficult for me to get a decent picture of him in my mind’s-eye, and while the cover provides what the publisher thought was a good likeness (as shown), I have to say I disagree. But given that illustration, I’ve been trying to think of a movie actor who resembles this fellow. I’ve come up with a couple of possibilities, but none good enough to mention at the moment. What do you think? Any suggestions?

   That dude in the later cover is a total imposter, as far as I’m concerned.

   Also, if you haven’t seen it already, go back and read Michael Shonk’s recent review of the Matt Helm television series, the one with Tony Franciosa in the title role.

THE BACKWARD REVIEWER
William F. Deeck


JOHN RHODE – Dead of the Night. Dodd Mead, US, hardcover, 1942. First published by Collins, UK, hardcover, 1942, as Night Exercise. Popular Library #99, paperback, no date [1946].

   This is the first novel by Rhode that I have read, aside from his collaboration with Carter Dickson, that does not feature Dr. Priestley. Though I find Priestley’s cases generally interesting, Priestley himself I regard as more than a bit of a bore. The characters in this novel appeal, however.

   Dead of the Night has something of the flavor of Christiana Brand’s Green for Danger. Though it’s not as good as her book, how many novels are? Whereas hers was about the activities in a hospital undergoing air raids during World War II, this deals with training and preparations for the potential invasion of England by Germany.

   The Home Guard of Wealdhurst is taking part in a night drill along with the Civil Defense Services. Colonel Chalgrove, the Group Commander and a man heartily detested by most who know him, shows up unexpectedly to observe the drill. The Colonel then vanishes during the exercise.

   Many explanations are given for the Colonel’s disappearing act. All of them turn out to be unsatisfactory.

   Suspicion begins to point to Major Ledbury, commander of Wealdhurst’s Home Guard, as the man who murdered Chalgrove, though there is no body. There is also, to my mind, little reason to suspect him, other than a mild threat to do grievous bodily harm to the Colonel because of the Colonel’s officiousness, a threat also uttered or thought by others. The detective, an otherwise estimable chap, blunders badly here, and Ledbury has to find out what happened to save himself.

   Rhode provides what seems to be a realistic picture of wartime England as well as a better-than-average mystery.

— Reprinted from The MYSTERY FANcier, Vol. 9, No. 6, November-December 1987.

Reviewed by MIKE TOONEY:


  McMILLAN & WIFE. NBC, 40 episodes, 1971-77. Regular cast: Rock Hudson, Susan Saint James, John Schuck, Nancy Walker.

   This TV series, a star vehicle for Rock Hudson, came close to being a fantasy, what with Police Commissioner Hudson personally solving murder cases best left to the homicide detectives. (Quincy had a similar premise.) McMillan & Wife was also too long, an hour and a half to two hours, inevitably leading to a lot of “padding” and “business” that had little or nothing to do with the main plot.

   Sometimes the padding was more interesting than the story — which is hardly a recommendation — with Nancy Walker as the McMillan’s housekeeper stealing most scenes. Still, the cast was amiable even if the stories dragged.

   So it is something of a pleasant surprise to note that several stories by Edward D. Hoch, master of the impossible crime tale, were adapted for this series. The results, of course, were predictably mixed.

“Cop of the Year.” Season 2, Episode 3. First broadcast: November 19, 1972. Guest cast: Martin E. Brooks, Edmond O’Brien, Lorraine Gary, Kenneth Mars, Charles Nelson Reilly, Michael Ansara, Paul Winchell, John Astin. Teleplay: Paul Mason and Oliver Hailey. Director: Robert Michael Lewis. Based on “The Leopold Locked Room” by Edward D. Hoch, EQMM, October 1971.

   In Hoch’s story, it’s Captain Leopold who gets framed for murdering his ex-wife; in the show it’s slightly off kilter Sgt. Enright (Schuck) who’s in a jam. In both cases, the central problem is the same: How could a bullet from the accused’s gun kill the victim without him firing it — and from twenty feet away instead of inches as the forensics data show? While there is some padding, this episode doesn’t waste too much time.

“Freefall to Terror.” Season 3, Episode 3. First broadcast: November 11, 1973. Guest cast: Barbara Feldon, James Olson, Tom Bosley, Dick Haymes, Edward Andrews, Tom Troupe, John Fiedler, Barbara Rhoades. Teleplay: Oliver Hailey. Director: Alf Kjellin. Based on “The Long Way Down” by Edward D. Hoch, AHMM, February 1965.

   A business executive crashes through a window in a high rise and hits the ground — over three hours later. If memory serves, both the story and the show have the same solution. Once again we have padding, such as the attempt on the victim’s life just after the opening credits, but it could have been worse.

“The Man Without a Face.” Season 3, Episode 4. First broadcast: January 6, 1974. Guest cast: Dana Wynter, Nehemiah Persoff, Stephen McNally, Donna Douglas, Steve Forrest, Vito Scotti, William Bryant, Ross Hagen, Catlin Adams. Teleplay: Don Mankiewicz and Gordon Cotler. TV story: Paul Mason. Director: Lee H. Katzin. Based on “???????” by Edward D. Hoch.

   It’s spy vs. spy, with a “dead” espionage agent bumping off former colleagues. This one gets a few points for a plot twist but then loses them for being rather predictable, overlong, and just plain boring.

   And there you have it. On Mystery*File a few years ago it was noted: “As prolific as Edward D. Hoch was — with over 900 short stories to his credit — the movie and TV media have made virtually no use of his output. The Internet Movie Database (IMDb) lists just 9 films derived from his works (9/900 = 1 percent). No more eloquent testimony against the obtuseness of Hollywood can be adduced.”

PostScript: I must confess that I have no idea what story the third episode is based on. Could it be “The Spy Who Didn’t Exist,” EQMM, December 1967? Any ideas?

ROBERT ARCHER – The Case of the Vanishing Women. Howell Soskin, hardcover, 1942. Handi-Book #10, paperback, 1943 (probably abridged).

   According to Al Hubin’s Crime Fiction IV, Robert Archer was the author of one other mystery under this pen name, Death on the Waterfront (Doubleday, 1941) and a third as by Robert Platt: The Swaying Corpse (Phoenix, 1941). Archer’s real name was Robert Vern DeWard, about whom Google reveals only that he was “born in Iowa on 8 Aug 1894 to Robert Archer and Addie Platt. Robert Vern married Ruby Fay Harris and had a child. He passed away on 4 Apr 1984 in Los Angeles, California.”

   This case of the “vanishing women” is tackled head-on by a pair of sleuths who as far I know were never involved in another. The story is told by a newspaperman named Marty Prentiss, just back in town (New York City) and trying to make a name for himself again by tagging along with a cop named Tiny Tim Lannahan when an unidentified body on a pier jutting into the North River along Manhattan’s west side.

   But Prentiss’s actual companion in solving the crime is a PI named John Stacy, whose path crosses that of Prentiss as he’s working on a kidnapping case that has led him into the same area along the docks. Missing is the adopted daughter of a well-known inventor who has plans for a weapons system for submarines that enemy agents would just love to get their hands on.

   Could the dead man be the inventor? The girl, once rescued, says yes. The man’s wife, once found, says no. And both the girl and the man’s wife seem to go missing every so often again, hence the title, but as titles go, it’s still a rather uninspired one.

   And so seems the case. A lot appears to be happening in a big chunk of the middle part of the book, but if you were to stop reading and think about it, you’d realize how much wheel spinning has really been going on.

   Nor does the writing ever seem inspired. It’s competent enough, in a semi-breezy style that’s better then 80% of the pulp detective fiction that was being written at the time, but it’s nowhere nearly as well done as the work usually turned in by the guys who wrote for Black Mask, for example.

   Until the ending, that is, when Prentiss finally shows he hasn’t been sleeping all the way the case. (A bad metaphor. He actually doesn’t get a lot of sleep in this book.) I’m still not sure if the pieces all fit together, but Archer definitely had had something up his sleeve all along, and it shows. Not a classic, by any means, but as a detective novel, it’s a memorable one.

Reviewed by JONATHAN LEWIS:         


STREET LAW. Capital Film, Italy, 1974. Hallmark Releasing, US, 1976. Original title: Il cittadino si ribella. Also released as The Citizen Rebels. Franco Nero, Giancarlo Prete, Barbara Bach, Renzo Palmer, Nazzareno Zamperla. Director: Enzo G. Castellari.

   Sometimes a man’s had just about enough of the crime that plagues his city’s streets. So he has no choice but to take the law in his own hands, to smoke out the criminal element and then eliminate it once and for all. Who knows? Maybe he’ll even inspire others average citizens to follow his path. Such is the formula for many an urban revenge thriller.

   And it’s definitely the formula utilized in Enzo G. Castellari’s Street Law, a Euro-crime film starring Franco Nero.

   Nero portrays an engineer by the name of Carlo Antonelli, a man who, as his luck will have it, happens to be in a bank when armed robbers burst in and demand cash. When Antonelli’s own money is personally threatened, he not only refuses to let the thugs abscond with it, but he attempts to fight back against the masked men. Suffice it to say, this ends badly for our future anti-hero. But the bruised and beaten Antonelli isn’t done. Not by a long shot.

   After determining that the police either can’t, or won’t, do all they can to track down the robbers, Antonelli decides he’s going to do it on his own. This, of course, leads to a somewhat clichéd confrontation with his girlfriend, Barbara (Barbara Bach), who urges him not to take the law into his own hands. She does have a point, even if the fiercely resolute Antonelli won’t listen.

   Antonelli realizes soon enough that this is a job too big for one man, no matter how headstrong and reckless. So he teams up with a criminal named Tommy (Giancarlo Prete), who begrudgingly, then enthusiastically, helps him track down the bank robbers.

   There are some exceptionally well-choreographed action scenes, both fights and car chases. I also enjoyed the gritty urban setting, which made the film a time capsule of sorts, a glance backward into 1970s Italy. The movie also makes extensive use of music. Unfortunately, it often overwhelms the visuals and hence, the already somewhat uninspired plot.

   As a crime film, Street Law is perfectly satisfactory. It’s definitely light on character development and somewhat wanting on plot. But thematically, Street Law is quite strong. If you like revenge thrillers like Death Wish or Vigilante, you might find Street Law well worth your consideration.

Reviewed by DAN STUMPF:         


ATTACK OF THE ROBOTS / CARTES SUR TABLE / CARTAS BOCA ARRIBA. Spéva Films / Ciné-Alliance / Hesperia Films S.A., French-Spanish, 1966. Eddie Constantine, Françoise Brion, Fernando Rey, Sophie Hardy. Written by Jean-Claude Carriere. Directed by Jesus Franco….

   …which I guess answers the question, “What would Jesus direct?”

   Actually this is a surprisingly light and enjoyable thing to come from Jesus (aka “Jess” for American consumption) Franco, who more typically did sex-and-gore epics like Revenge of the Alligator Ladies and Lust for Frankenstein. It helps that it was written by Jean-Claude Carriere, a frequent collaborator with Luis Bunuel and the screenwriter of such trifles as Borsalino and Viva Maria.

   It also helps that Eddie Constantine stars, and lends his compelling screen presence to a role suited perfectly to him. For those of you not in on it, Constantine was an American actor who hit the big time as a night club singer in France and went on to star in a whole bunch of “B” action movies, usually as Lemmy Caution and most famously in Jen-Luc Godard’s Alphaville (1965).

   Here he plays a retired Secret Agent named Al Pereira (or Carl Peterson, depending on the dubbing) called back into the field by his superiors to check out assassinations committed by individuals apparently under the influence of what’s known in the genre as Some Diabolical Mind Control. And he isn’t on the job for much longer than a few bites of popcorn before he’s run into oriental masterminds, seductive ladies, furtive guys-who-know-too-much and the odd bruiser just looking for a fight.

    All this comes off much better than it deserves, thanks mostly to Constantine’s brutal charisma. Projecting a screen persona somewhere between Humphrey Bogart and the Creature from the Black Lagoon, he lumbers gracefully across the screen, and somehow convinces you that yes, he really is that tough.

   The story lumbers a bit too, I’m afraid — not so much a story as a succession of fights and chases, but writer Carriere does what he can with it. Some of the repartee is genuinely funny, there are a couple of amusing twists (as when a squad of killer robots and a gang of Chinese assassins prepare to ambush our hero in his room and suddenly discover each other’s presence) and we even get an oriental mastermind with a sense of humor.

   Perhaps no film should need so many redeeming features, but this one somehow carries it off, and if you’re in the mood for something mindless, it fills the time very pleasantly.

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