REVIEWED BY DAN STUMPF:


BABES IN BAGDAD. United Artists, 1952. Paulette Goddard, Gypsy Rose Lee, Richard Ney, John Boles, Sebastian Cabot. Written by Joe Ansen and Felix Feist. Directed by Edgar Ulmer.

   You can gauge the quality of a fabric by the way it wrinkles. In this case Paulette Goddard, in the sputtering last days of her movie career, brings a surprising vigor and cheerfulness to what must have seemed like a desperate cheapie.

   There’s some real talent involved here, though. Ms Goddard, a delightful presence by herself, worked brilliantly with Charlie Chaplin, Burgess Meredith, Mitchell Leisen, Jean Renoir and Cecil B. de Mille. John Boles was never an electrifying screen presence (he drops out of Frankenstein halfway through and no one notices!) but he had a colorful background as a spy for the allies in World War I and apparently came out of retirement just for this. Director Edgar Ulmer helmed some genuine masterpieces, and Gypsy Rose Lee… well she was a better actress than anyone with a body like that really needed to be.

   And here they are, all together in Spain (a lot of fading stars and maverick filmmakers found themselves in Europe at the time; think of Welles, Chaplin, Flynn….) amid a jumble of cardboard sets and costumed extras trotting through the Arabian Nights and doing it with real panache.

   Edgar Ulmer shows a remarkable touch for humor — unexpected from a director famed for lugubrious stuff like The Black Cat, Detour and Bluebeard — moving his camera fluidly through palaces, harems and marketplaces with assurance, and pacing the comic scenes at a brisk tempo.

   Unfortunately, there’s a story to get through here, of the sort that is generally and mercifully described as El Stinko. Something about neglected harem girls lobbying for equal rights, a conniving tax collector, hero Richard Ney falling for defiant slave girl Goddard, switched identities… it all gets a bit hard to follow and frankly not worth the effort.

   The film itself is a pleasure to watch, however. Ulmer keeps it interesting to look at, Sebastian Cabot throws in a fine bit as a eunuch, you can glimpse Christopher Lee (if you don’t blink) as a slave trader. And Ms. Goddard plays it with all the enthusiasm she gave to movies like Ghostbreakers and Modern Times: writhing, struggling and cursing as a reluctant captive, playing for laughs as a scheming vixen, and finally simply sweet and seductive for the happy ending.

   Babes in Bagdad isn’t an easy film to find, and the print I finally located is pretty dismal, but it’s still fun and, in its own way, a fitting coda to a memorable career.

DONALD HAMILTON – The Poisoners. Matt Helm #13. Fawcett Gold Medal M2764, paperback original; 1st printing, March 1971.

   This was the first Matt Helm to be publishers in the 1970s, and the one in which some fans have said the series began to lose its initial innate hardboiled essence. While I have not made a point of reading them in order, I would tend to agree. This one clocks in at an acceptably compact 224 pages, but for most of the book the plot doesn’t build up any momentum, and Helm’s digressions upon whatever he feels the need to digress upon do little to help.

   This one begins with Helm being asked to cut short his r&r leave in New Mexico and head to Los Angeles where a female agent he had personally recruited for his undercover US agency has just been killed. His assignment, find out who and why and do something about it.

   And of course the case expands dramatically from there. The title has two meanings, the first of which I can tell you about: the rumored illegal import of cocaine from Mexico. The second is the one the story is really about, and since its secret is essential to the tale, I won’t tell you much about it, but I will say that I didn’t buy into it any further than I can throw myself from here to there.

   There are a number of women in the story, all attractive of course, not all of them are on our side. Question: which are which? There also a notorious criminal assassin involved, but all that is known about him (or her!) is his code name. All this intrigue keeps a man sharp, though, and Matt Helm is still the man to do it — no doubt about it!

I don’t know much about this big band soul-funk group. They produced one self-titled LP in 1971, and that was all. This song comes from that album.

A 1001 MIDNIGHTS Review
by Bill Pronzini


LAWRENCE G. BLOCHMAN – Diagnosis: Homicide. J. B. Lippincott, hardcover, 1950. Pocket Book #793, paperback, 1951. Television: CBS, 1960, nine-episode summer replacement series, with Patrick O’Neal (Dr. Coffee), Phyllis Newman (Doris Hudson), Cal Bellini (Dr. Mookerji), Chester Morris (Max Ritter).

   Although most of his work is (regrettably) long out of print and he is little known among modern readers, Lawrence G. Blochman was an innovative and popular writer for more than four decades. His early novels and short stories had foreign settings, primarily India, where he spent several years in the 1920s as a newspaperman.

   Bombay Mail (1934), his first and probably most accomplished novel, is set on board an Indian train; features one of his many series characters, Inspector Leonidas Prike of the British CID; and is one of the best of that intriguing subgenre, the railway mystery. Two other Prike novels, Bengal Fire (1937) and Red Snow at Darjeeling (1938), are also good, as is Blow-Down (1939), a non-series suspense/adventure novel set in a sleepy Central American banana port.

   Blochman’s most notable creations, however, are his numerous short stories (for such magazines as Collier’s and Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine) and one novel featuring Dr. Daniel Webster Coffee, pathologist of the Pasteur Hospital in mythical Northbank, New York. Coffee was the first pathologist detective in crime fiction, the forefather of TV’s Quincy, and his cases have a uniform sense of realism as a result of Blochman’s interest and research in forensic medicine. Diagnosis: Homicide, the first of two Dr. Coffee collections, is of sufficient import that Ellery Queen included it as the lO6th and final entry on his Queen’s Quorum list of most important volumes of detective short stories.

   The eight novelettes in this book are what might be called “forensic procedurals.” Coffee’s chief criminological weapons, as Ellery Queen has pointed out, are modern (circa 1950) laboratory procedures in pathology, chemistry, serology, microscopy, and toxicology.

   With these — and the help of his assistant, Dr. Motilal Mookerji, on scholarship from Calcutta Medical College, and police lieutenant Max Ritter — the good doctor solves such baffling cases as the death of a woman after an apparently simple appendectomy (“But the Patient Died”); the strange case of a woman who hears a baby crying in the night, even though there is no baby in her house (“The Phantom Cry-Baby”); and the murder of a doctor to cover up one of the oddest rackets in medical (and criminous) history (“Brood of Evil”).

   The second Dr. Coffee collection, Clues for Dr. Coffee (1964), is likewise excellent and worth seeking out. Somewhat less successful is the only novel featuring the pathologist and his sidekicks, Recipe for Homicide (1952); Coffee’s talents, as Blochman himself seems to have realized, are better suited to the short-story form.

         ———
   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.

REVIEWED BY DAVID VINEYARD:


BOMBAY MAIL. Universal Pictures, 1934. Edmond Lowe, Ralph Forbes, Sally Grey, Hedda Hopper, Onslow Stevens, Jameson Thomas, Ferdinand Gottshalk, Brandon Hurst, John Davidson, Walter Armitridge, John Wray, Georges Renavent. Screenplay: Tom Reed, based on the novel by Lawrence G. Blochman. Director: Edwin L. Marin.

   It’s hard to imagine what Hollywood would have done for detectives in the 1930’s without William Powell and Edmond Lowe. There is little doubt movie-goers would have been worse off.

   Here Lowe is Inspector Dyke (Pryke in the novel, and the change still doesn’t avoid some juvenile innuendo) of the Indian Police who has his hands full when Sir Anthony Daniels (Ferdinand Gottshalk), Governor of Bengal, is murdered with cyanide on the Bombay Express en-route to retirement. He can’t hold up the Express so he determines to investigate during the remaining journey to Bombay.

BOMBAY MAIL Edmund Lowe

   And he has his hands full, with a train load of red herrings, many with motives to kill the late governor, including Lady Daniels (Hedda Hopper) who argued with her husband about his flirtation with a Russian opera singer and happens to collect butterflies and worse seems to have misplaced the cyanide used to euthanize them; Beatrice Jones of Canada (Sally Grey), who people keep mistaking for Sonia Smeganoff, the White Russian opera singer who apparently was a prostitute in Calcutta; John Halliday (Onslow Stevens) an American miner who desperately wanted to see the Governor and is carrying valuable sapphires about in his tobacco pouch.

   And there are more: R. Xavier (John Davidson) a mysterious Eurasian who will do anything to steal the jewels from his former partner, Halliday, and who, hired a mysterious Italian, Martini (John Wray) to steal them; Dr. Maurice Renoir (Georges Renavent) a French expert in toxins who is unusually protective of his medical bag.

BOMBAY MAIL Edmund Lowe

   Still more: the Maharajah of Zungara (Walter Armitridge) traveling with Daniels to plead to remain in control of his little kingdom; Pundit Garnath Chundra (Brandon Hurst) a Ghandi like revolutionary with no love of the British; the Governors military advisor Captain Gerald Worthing (Jameson Thomas) facing charges for being seen in the company of a certain Russian opera singer; and the Governor’s secretary Captain William Luke-Paton, who has a thing for fast, and slow, horses.

   There are bodies hidden in lavatories, screams in the night, an assassination and frameup, a pesky cobra, lies within lies, and a straight forward gathering of the suspects as the train nears Bombay and time runs out to identify the murderer.

   Dated as it is, this is an entertaining murder on a train film with an outstanding cast, and fortunately closer than most to the fine book (first in the Inspector Pryke series) it is based on. Lowe is ideal as the tough leering no nonsense sleuth, and both Stevens and Grey have some fun as people thrown together by the sheer amount of lies they are telling and mutual attraction. There is a harrowing crossing of the rooftops of the speeding train, some clever escapes, and a tense confrontation with a King cobra in a small railway suite.

   All and all it is just about a perfect example of what it is, a fast-paced Hollywood murder mystery from the classic era.

BOMBAY MAIL Edmund Lowe

BRIDGET McKENNA – Caught Dead. PI Caley Burke #3. Berkley, paperback original; 1st printing, February 1995.

   The ending of book two in this series must have been fairly spectacular. At the beginning of this one, private eye Caley Burke’s boss won’t let her come back to work for a second week until she agrees to go in for counseling to see why she can’t sleep at nights. Not too many people ever shoot and kill someone, even in self defense.

   She agrees, but she decides to take a case on her own as her own form of self-help therapy. The son of her favorite waitress at her usual breakfast spot hires her to find out who his father is. His mother won’t tell him. Not only this is a situation in which you should be careful what you ask for, but it’s one which goes far beyond that. The very next day his mother is arrested for the brutal slaying of her sister.

   We are in Sue Grafton territory here. Caley lives in s medium-sized town in central California, lives alone and likes it that way, and when she gets her teeth into a case, she doesn’t let go. She pries and she pries, and bit by bit, the secrets begin to loosen and come flying off.

   Caley doesn’t have the flair of Kinsey Millhone, though. She’s effective but is a lot more workmanlike in her pursuit for the truth. There are a lot of suspects in the case, all the more so as the dead woman was intensely disliked by everyone in town, including her family. This means, of course, that Caley has to ask a lot of questions. Surprisingly, she gets a lot of people to answer.

   Overall, better than average, with decent clueing, more than two-dimensional characters, and an ending that just may catch you by surprise. (It’s intended to.) I’d read the next one, but after three books, there never was a fourth. I’ll have to go back and see what I missed in the first two.

      The Caley Burke series —

Murder Beach (1993)

Dead Ahead (1994)  Nominated for a Shamus award.
Caught Dead (1995)

Tom Rush’s second album, from 1963:

REVIEWED BY JONATHAN LEWIS:


GUN THE MAN DOWN. United Artists / Batjac Productions, 1956. James Arness, Angie Dickinson, Emile Meyer, Robert Wilke, Harry Carey Jr., Michael Emmet. Director: Andrew V. McLaglen.

   I had somewhat high hopes for Gun The Man Down. Not only is it a Batjac film — John Wayne’s production company — but it also features Gunsmoke star James Arness in a leading role. Sadly, I came away disappointed and, truth be told, somewhat frustrated at what clearly could have been a much better revenge story.

   Arness portrays Rem Andersen, a man who stupidly decides to throw his lot in with a bank robber duo. When their first bank job together goes awry, Rem ends up wounded and at the mercy of law enforcement. The brains of the operation, Matt Rankin (Robert Wilke) not only gets away with the loot, but also rides away with Rem’s girl, Janice (Angie Dickinson). After spending a year in jail, Rem decides to get even with those who betrayed him. Standing in his path is not only a gunfighter named Billy Deal, but also a small town sheriff (Emile Meyer) and his deputy (Harry Carey, Jr.) Truth be told, none of the characters apart from these latter two are particularly compelling.

   Although it starts off with promise and is well photographed and competently staged, Gun The Man Down simply never rises above its formulaic and mediocre plot. Even worse, the film eventually bogs down in a poorly lit night gunfight, a sequence which not only lasts far too long, but one that doesn’t give the viewer ample opportunity to even decipher what’s going on. Not that it really matters much, given how low the stakes seem to be in this rather uninteresting tale featuring a protagonist who is incredibly difficult to root for.

DANGER ON THE AIR. Universal Pictures, 1938. Nan Grey, Donald Woods, Jed Prouty, Berton Churchill, William Lundigan, Richard ‘Skeets’ Gallagher, Edward Van Sloan, Lee J. Cobb, (Peter) Lind Hayes, Louise Stanley. Based on the Doubleday Crime Club novel Death Catches Up With Mr. Kluck, by Xantippe. Director: Otis Garrett.

   Despite too many characters and too much plot to be crammed into a 70 minute running time, this proved to be an enjoyable little murder mystery. This is, of course, what happens when a full length detective novel is the basis of a film — “crammed” is exactly the right word.

   As perhaps the title would suggest, most of the movie takes place in a radio studio, setting that movie audience in 1938 would have little chance seeing for themselves on their own. Dead is one of the biggest sponsors the Cosmopolitan Network has, an obnoxious micro-manager and lecherous old goat named Caesar Kluck. He’s someone who people take objection to at first meeting, so the killer could be almost anyone.

   Teaming up to solve the case are a studio technician (Donald Woods) and a girl production assistant (Nan Grey). They’re somewhat of a mismatched couple. He’s studious and dull; she’s vivacious and very pretty. There are loads of veteran character actors on the scene as well, but the film also includes some relative newcomers such as Peter Lind Hayes (who does voice imitations of then current radio stars, including Bing Crosby) and Lee J. Cobb, who at a very young age played an aged ethnic janitor with considerable ease.

   Because of the short running time, the plot doesn’t make a lot of sense, zigzagging this way and that so that everybody in the studio is shown as a possible suspect, and worse, the killer’s motive comes right out of some magician’s hat. Bear with it though, and you may enjoy this one as much as I did.

A 1001 MIDNIGHTS Review
by Susan Dunlap


SUZANNE BLANC – The Green Stone. Harper & Brothers, 1961. Detective Book Club, hardcover reprint, 3-in-1 edition. Lancer 73-533, paperback, 1966. Carroll & Graf, paperback, 1984.

   The green stone is an emerald worth $1200, a fortune in the Mexican town of San Luis. It draws three strangers inexorably together, and it changes the lives of all three. Inspector Menendes, viewed with suspicion both because he is an educated Indian and because he is a policeman (presumed to be brutal and corrupt), must find the stolen gem in order to validate himself.

   Jessie Prewitt, the little North American señora who accidentally comes into possession of the stone, must deal not only with increasing danger but also with refocusing her life after the sudden end of her marriage.

   And Luis Perez, who has lifted himself from poverty by creating a job as the town guide, sees the emerald as the means to security, the escape from the ever-present threat of poverty in a society where one misstep is a tumble into destitution, and where there is no second chance.

   The unfolding of the plot is simple. Three Indians from a village near San Luis murder a tourist couple to steal their money and, incidentally, the emerald ring. Clues vanish. Inspector Menendes is left with nothing to go on but his own intuition and his knowledge of the area where villagers scorn the Indians, Indians remain silent, both groups see the North Americans as legitimate sources of money, and everyone fears the police.

   Suzanne Blanc’s strength is her sharp depiction of life in San Luis and of her characters as each struggles and changes. The Green Stone is a hauntingly sensitive novel.

   Two of Blanc’s other novels are also set in Mexico: The Yellow Villa (1964) and The Rose Window (1967); a third, The Sea Troll (1969), takes place on board ship.

         ———
   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.

Additional Notes:   The Green Stone was nominated for two Edgars — one for Best First Novel, which it won, and Best Novel. Inspector Menendes appeared in all three of Blanc’s novels taking place in Mexico.

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