THE BACKWARD REVIEWER
William F. Deeck


LENORE GLEN OFFORD – Clues to Burn. Duell Sloane & Pearce, hardcover, 1942. Mercury Mystery #186, digest paperback, abridged, 1953.

   After the Electrical Dealers’ Convention, at which Bill Hastings discussed Priorities and Coco was an Electrical Widow, the two of them were looking forward to a quiet time on Sally Dudley’s rustic island — coal-oil lamps and outdoor plumbing — in a remote part of Idaho. Little did they know that others would show up to strain the food supply and the festivities and commit murder.

   Having investigated an earlier murder, Coco is eager, for the most part, to find out who killed the woman no one seemed to know. But, as the book’s title states, there are clues to burn — a bloody fingerprint, footprints, cigarette papers, etc. Is the murderer playing games with Coco, or is the shrewd killer planting, if such a thing can be done, red herrings?

   A fine husband-and-wife team in an amusing and richly clued — but which are real? — mystery.

— Reprinted from MYSTERY READERS JOURNAL, Vol. 6, No. 2, Summer 1990, “Vacation for Murder.”


Bio-Bibliographic Notes:   There was one earlier adventure of Bill and Coco Hastings, that being Murder on Russian Hill (Macrae-Smith, 1938). Besides writing six other mysteries, four of them with mystery writer turned amateur detective Todd McKinnon, Lenore Glen Offord was the mystery book critic for the San Francisco Chronicle for over 30 years.

REVIEWED BY DAVID VINEYARD:


LISA. 20th Century Fox, 1962. Stephen Boyd, Dolores Hart, Leo McKern, Hugh Griffith, Donald Pleasance, Harry Andrews, Robert Stephens, Marius Goring, Finlay Currie, Geoffrey Keen, Jack Gwillim. Screenplay by Nelson Giddings, based on the novel The Inspector by Jan de Hartog. Directed by Philip Dunne.

   An unusual adventure story/thriller in that despite the tension and real suspense, there are few real villains in the story and many small flawed but human heroes instead.

   The place is Holland in 1946 and Peter Jongman (Stephen Boyd) and Sgt. Stollers (Donald Pleasance) are Dutch policemen tracking a suspected ex-Nazi, Thorens (Marius Goring), who they believe is part of a white slavery ring offering to smuggle refugees to America and Canada but actually selling them to brothels in South America. They intercept Thorens on the boat train to Hoek and London while he is transporting one Lisa Held (Dolores Hart), a concentration camp survivor, and Jongman follows them to London.

   In London Jongman is angered to learn from his policeman friend (Jack Gwillim) that Scotland Yard can do nothing so he confronts Thorens himself. There is a struggle and he knocks Thorens down. Outside the flat he meets Lisa and learns she is a concentration camp survivor Thorens offered to transport to Palestine. Jongman offers to take her back to Amsterdam and she agrees having nowhere else to go, and along the way decides to help her get to Palestine, but once back in Amsterdam he learns from his superior (Geoffrey Keen) that Thorens was killed and he is wanted for questioning and the girl suspected of murder.

   But Jongman has a secret that plagues him and decides to risk everything to get the girl to Palestine, setting off an international manhunt along the way.

   Based on a novel by bestselling novelist Jan de Hartog (The Captain, The Key, etc.) Lisa is unusual in that it concentrates on small human acts of kindness and humanity rather than villains or villainy. There are villains, Thorens played briefly but menacingly by Marius Goring, the unseen, for the most part, Nazis from the war, and a ship of modern pirates they encounter along the way, but they play relatively small roles.

   In a quiet and subtle way Lisa is about kindness and regret in the face of the horrors of the war. Jongman is haunted by having stayed as a policeman during the Occupation and his failure to save a Jewish girl he loved that he had believed the Germans would leave alone if he cooperated. Saving this one girl is his chance at redemption. Lisa herself, a survivor of Nazi medical experiments, is dead inside and has to be reborn through the love that develops between Jongman and herself, and the simple kindness they encounter along the way, Palestine is a dream of new life to her among others wounded as she was since she believes she can’t survive among normal people, but the journey will transform her into a living breathing woman again.

   At each turn the two encounter good people who help them along the way; Jan (Finlay Currie( the river master who knows every smuggler in Holland and has known Jongman since he was a young policeman on the River Police; grumpy old Captain Brandt (Leo McKern), the barge captain who helps smuggle them out of Holland; Sgt. Stollers, too good a policeman not to be ahead of Jongman at every stop and too good a man not to risk is career to save him; Van der Pink (Hugh Griffith) the canny Dutch smuggler in Tangier; Roger Dickens (Robert Stephens) the humane British agent whose job; however much he hates it, is to stop them from entering Palestine and see Jongman goes back to England to face the law; and, Captain Ayoub (Harry Andrews) the Arab gun smuggler who also smuggles Jewish refugees into Palestine.

   It’s a strong movie. The scene where Lisa relives the horror of her ordeal in the medical experimentation camp is powerful stuff, and there are more than enough setbacks and tension to engender suspense while the romance that develops between Jongman and Lisa is affectingly played by Boyd and Hart as simple and human. This was Hart’s last film before she became a nun, and supposedly her favorite of the ones she did.

   This is an intelligent and ultimately heartwarming film about redemption and sacrifice, survival, decency, and hope. It isn’t political and it doesn’t beat the viewer over the head about the horrors that lay behind it, but deals with them in a straight forward manner, both the horrors men can perpetrate upon each other, and the small kindnesses and moments of human decency that sometimes redeem them.

   No one should be surprised McKern, Griffith, and Andrews steal the thing whenever they are on screen. All three were veteran scene stealers by the time this film was made. Boyd was a more than capable leading man whose ability to play a villain as well as a hero enriched his performances, and Hart, in her few roles, had a short but remarkably strong career.

   The film is richly shot in color in Cinemascope on location across Europe and in the Middle East with a rich score by Malcolm Arnold; add to that brief but strong performances by Donald Pleasance, Robert Stephens, Finlay Currie, and Marius Goring, and Lisa is a strong and affecting film that does exactly what author Jan de Hartog intended of his novel, to give people hope in the face of the horrors of the past.

Reviewed by JONATHAN LEWIS:


TO LIVE AND DIE IN L.A. MGM/United Artists, 1985. William Petersen, Willem Dafoe, John Pankow, Debra Feuer, John Turturro, Darlanne Fluegel, Dean Stockwell. Screenplay by William Friedkin, based on the novel by Gerald Petievich. Director: William Friedkin.

   By the time To Live and Die in L.A. ended, I had lost track of the number of times characters had double-crossed one another in this neo-noir police procedural. Directed by William Friedkin, this is a visually captivating, synth-pop driven journey in Los Angeles’s back alleys and its concomitant back room dealing. From warehouses to freeways, from Beverly Hills to San Pedro, the movie presents an off kilter portrait of two Secret Service Agents pushed to the limits in their quest to take down an infamous counterfeiter.

   When Agent Richard Chance (William Petersen) learns that notorious counterfeiter Rick Masters (Willem Dafoe) is behind his partner’s murder, he decides that he’s quite literally willing to do whatever it takes to take Masters down. That means cheating, stealing, and killing. Whatever it takes.

   Soon enough, Chance has fellow Secret Service Agent Jon Vukovich (John Pankow) by his side, bending and breaking all the rules in the book. The two agents devise a scheme by which they will steal money from an illicit diamond dealer and utilize the cash to conduct their own off the book sting operation against Masters. What happens next is right out of the noir playbook. Not only does their plan go awry, it goes awry in the worst possible way. This leads Chance and Vukovich down a deadly path leading to an ultimate showdown with Masters and his henchman.

   While the plot will keep you guessing, the film isn’t necessarily a plot-driven work. Indeed, the movie is as much a visual tour of the seedy underbelly of LA as it is a crime story, with scenes and sequences amplified by soundtrack composed by the 1980s pop band Wang Chung. The opening sequence in which the President’s motorcade pulls into the Beverly Hilton, for instance, is well served by the title song, lending the movie a dramatic sense of place from the get go.

   Like the cars in the motorcade, the film is a journey into a fantastically noir vision of a counterfeiting mastermind and the men who ultimately bring him down. Look for the incredible chase sequence, one that rivals anything you’ve seen in Bullitt (1968) or The French Connection (1971). It’s a thrilling sequence in a remarkably effective and gritty crime film.

Reviewed by DAN STUMPF:


SHACK OUT ON 101, Allied Artists, 1955. Terry Moore, Frank Lovejoy, Keenan Wynn, Lee Marvin, Whit Bissell and Len Lesser. Written by Edward & Mildred Dein. Directed by Edward Dein.

   Probably the best movie made that year about commies infiltrating a diner, this is in fact a film of bewitching badness, enchanting ineptitude and the occasional good part that serves accentuate the awful rest of the thing.

   Briefly, Keenan Wynn runs the Diner; Terry Moore works there as a waitress but she’s studying to pass the Civil Service exam so she can get a good job and make her boyfriend proud of her. Said boyfriend is Frank Lovejoy as a Nuclear Scientist (!?!?) who is working on some shady deal with Slob (Lee Marvin) the short-order cook. Whit Bissell is a salesman/old army buddy of Wynn’s who hangs around to pad out the running time.

   Okay, that’s the dramatis personae. As for the plot, well there isn’t much. We quickly learn that Slob, in addition to being a boorish letch, is also a commie spy, buying secrets from Frank. Is Frank really a traitor? Will Slob attack Terry? What about the two chicken vendors who sneak around at night watching the place through binoculars? Or the nasty-looking fish-peddler appropriately named Perch who keeps passing things to Slob in buckets of fish? And will any of this ever amount to anything?

   Actually there’s a rather nice bit toward the end when Slob drops the mask and starts stalking Terry around the dark, deserted diner. But it’s a long time coming, delayed by perfunctory love scenes and stretches where everyone just seems to be killing time. The action (I use the term loosely and with tongue in cheek) stays in and around the same cheap set for the whole movie, and the comedy relief… well the less said the bitter.

   At this point you’re probably asking yourself, “So why bother?” and I have to admit that Shack Out on 101 seemed to touch some childhood chord in my memory; I remembered being a kid in the 1950s and wondering when the Bomb would drop. Hearing about the HUAC hearings and trying to figure out who in my neighborhood was a commie spy: How about my 6th grade teacher? Or the old couple with the foreign accents who ran the musty old newsstand? Could they be Foreign Agents passing secrets in innocent-looking out-of-town papers, and stuff like that?

   Shack Out taps into this collective paranoia with an engaging innocence, terrible in an enjoyable way, with a few old pros and a talented newcomer ignoring the badness and playing out their parts with straight faces and even some energy. Writer/director Dein (who helmed Curse of the Undead — the first vampire-western — and The Leech Woman, and co-wrote The Leopard Man) gets through it quickly and efficiently, and there is that odd glimmer of passable filmmaking that seems to glitter all the brighter for being mired in a film like this.

   And if the character of Perch looks familiar to you, that’s because he’s played by Len Lesser: Uncle Leo on the Seinfeld series.

THE BACKWARD REVIEWER
William F. Deeck


MARGARET MILLAR – Fire Will Freeze. Random House, hardcover, 1944. Dell #157, mapback edition, 1947. Signet P3101, paperback, February 1967. International Polygonics Library, paperback, 1987.

   In a mental letter to the Messrs. Abercrombie & Fitch, Miss Isobel Seton writes: “Because one of your irresponsible clerks did not prevent me from buying a pair of skis, I am sitting here in what these damned Canadians call a Sno-bus, which means a bus that meets a Sno-train and conveys one to a Sno-lodge. I am marooned in the wilds of Quebec in a raging Sno-storm.”

   That’s not the worst. When the Sno-bus driver gets out ostensibly to check a tire chain, he abandons the bus and its occupants. Trying to follow him, they discover a house, from which they are shot at and which contains the dotty Miss Rudd. Miss Rudd likes to cut up things, but would she have cut her favorite cat’s throat? And who would have expected, despite the presence of the mostly odd former occupants of the bus, two corpses?

   Amid the laughter, you probably will find yourself casting worried glances over your shoulder.

— Reprinted from MYSTERY READERS JOURNAL, Vol. 6, No. 2, Summer 1990, “Vacation for Murder.”

ONCE A THIEF. MGM, 1965. Alain Delon, Ann-Margret, Van Heflin, Jack Palance, John Davis Chandler, Jeff Corey. Screenplay: Zekial Marko, based on his novel Scratch A Thief as by John Trinian (Ace Double F-107, 1961; Stark House, 2016). Director: Ralph Nelson.

   This better than average crime heist film came along a few years after the height of the noir era, and while truth be told, it doesn’t break any new ground, it’s well-filmed, well-acted and beautifully photographed (in black and white when they knew how to film in black and white).

   The thief in question is Alain Delon, who plays Eddie Pedak, a guy who’s done some time but is now married to Ann-Margret and has an honest job down by the San Francisco docks. He’s just made a down payment on his own boat when his nemesis, Inspector Mike Vido (Van Heflin), figures he’s the one who killed a Chinese woman in the process of robbing her small store.

   When the woman’s husband can’t identify Eddie as the killer, he’s allowed to go free, but in the meantime he’s lost his job. Ann-Margret gets a job in a local nightspot — this doesn’t go over well — and then along comes his brother Walter (Jack Palance), a hustler and small-time hoodlum with an offer Eddie, desperate for money, can’t refuse.

   A heist, in other words, and Walter needs Eddie. (I did mention, didn’t I, that not much in new ground is broken?) Heists never go as planned, but the story’s not really about the robbery. It’s about the characters, and while you can’t believe that Alan Delon and Jack Palance could ever be related, they make their roles ones they seemingly were born to play. Ann-Margret’s histrionics may go over the top a couple of times, but she managed to convince me that any mother whose young daughter is being held by a gang of sadistic thieves would react exactly the same way.

   Did I say the heist goes badly? Indeed it does.

A TV SERIES REVIEW
by Michael Shonk


GEORGE SANDERS MYSTERY THEATRE (aka MYSTERY WRITERS THEATRE). NBC; June 22, 1957 to September 14, 1957. Screen Gems / Bischoff-Diamond Productions. Presented by George Sanders.

   During the days of radio and early television the anthology series was very popular. There were a seemingly endless number of the genre from ALCOA PREMIERE to WAY OUT or better remembered from ALFRED HITCHCOCK PRESENTS to TWILIGHT ZONE. Virtually all had the same format: a famous actor or writer/producer of the show would talk directly to the audience introducing the story to follow. If an actor were the host, he or she would act in an occasional episode.

   Most of the episodes of the majority of these anthologies were as forgettable as the series themselves. Yet occasionally an episode would hold a surprise. There are currently two episodes of GEORGE SANDERS MYSTERY THEATRE on YouTube. Each features a different series title and premise for the short-lived anthology.

   “And The Birds Still Sing” is a forgotten adaptation of a Craig Rice short story featuring John J. Malone, with Malone forced to adopt the alias of Francis Parnell. This episode also featured the series original name MYSTERY WRITERS THEATRE and its original premise, to adapt the work of the members of Mystery Writers Association of America (“Billboard” December 3, 1955).

   The Mystery Writers of America was and is a non-profit organization of writers. The group is best known for the Edgar Awards, but also helped its members’ work get adapted for radio (MYSTERY HALL OF FAME) and TV (THE WEB, CBS).

   “And The Birds Still Sing.” (June 29, 1957) Teleplay by Gene Wang, based on a story by Craig Rice as published in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine. Directed by Gerd Oswald. CAST: John Archer, Mae Clark, Tristram Coffin, and John Beradino. *** A femme fatale hires lawyer Francis Parnell for reasons unknown. When Parnell finds her murdered he is quick to find a new client and the killer.

   I have not read the source material, a short story published in EQMM (December, 1952), but the Gene Wang adaptation captures Rice’s style well with an odd murder and odder characters and a twist at the end that is pure Malone.

   Wang had experience with Malone as he wrote the best adaption of the character, the summer 1951 NBC radio series starring George Petrie as Malone. You can find my earlier review of the radio series here. (Follow the link.)

   The episode’s host segment by George Sanders has its moments as he introduced not only the story but also the MWA club.

   There is no doubt lawyer Francis Parnell was really Malone. Both being cocky, broke, cliché-quoting lawyers who spend their days in a local bar and are more interested in a paying client that they can get off than in justice.

   Sadly, actor John Archer was the weakest part of the episode. He lacked the charm and comedic timing to make Malone the lovable anti-hero Rice created. As to be expected, the production values were low and left it all with a stagey feel.

   Something happened during the series production. There were changes in the fourth episode “You Don’t Live Here.” Gone is the title card for the Mystery Writers of America along with any mention of the MWA and its club. In its place is the series title THE GEORGE SANDERS MYSTERY THEATRE, and the host segments shifted focus away from the MWA to George Sanders persona and the episode at hand, even with Sanders wandering around the story’s location rather than the MWA club. Gone also was an adaption of a MWA members’ work and in its place was a TV original story by relative unknown Eugene Francis. The series now – at least for this episode – was just another wanna-be ALFRED HITCHCOCK PRESENTS.

   “You Don’t Live Here.” (July 13, 1957) Written by Eugene Francis. Produced and directed by Fletcher Markle. CAST: Marion Ross, Alex Gerry and Peter Thompson. *** Returning from a visit with her sick Mother a newlywed discovers her world gone – others now live in her home, her husband has vanished as if he never existed, and her landlord and neighbor claim they have never met her.

   The problem with these GASLIGHT-like plots they are always too unnecessarily complex to be believable. The episode tries to keep us guessing who is telling the truth but with the thirty-minute time limit we never get to know the characters well enough to care.

   The George Sanders bits are embarrassingly bad as he hams it up even beyond his usual excesses.

   The series has an interesting backstory. According to “Billboard” (July 14, 1956), NBC had bought MYSTERY WRITERS THEATRE from Screen Gems with plans to air the series later. “Broadcasting” (August 13, 1956) noted NBC did not plan to air the series in the fall of 1956-57 season but instead hold the series called GEORGE SANDERS SHOW for the 1957-58 season.

   From “Broadcasting” (September 17, 1956), NBC buys Screen Gems series GEORGE SANDERS MYSTERY THEATRE, but only after Screen Gems agreed to share the profit from the series with the network. NBC would get 25% of the profits from the airing of the series in the U.S. and Canada as well as a rerun share.

   This was a time when the networks sold time slots to advertising agencies and sponsors. “Broadcasting” (May 13, 1957) reported Pabst (beer) bought thirteen weeks of GEORGE SANDERS THEATRE to run during the summer on Saturday at 9pm- 9:30pm.

   But this could only last for thirteen weeks as NBC had sold the time slot (Saturday at 9pm) for the fall to ad agency Liggett & Myers for sponsors Chesterfield (cigarettes) and Max Factor of Hollywood for the TV series PANIC.

   So what happened to the MWA during this series? The episode indexes available for this series show the series was a mix of adaptations and originals.

   “Broadcasting” (April 30, 1956) mentioned an episode of MYSTERY WRITERS THEATRE was shown to four hundred MWA members and their guests during the Edgar Allan Poe Awards on April 19, 1956. This means at least one episode was done before the anthology series was bought by NBC in July 1956 and not aired until June 1957. Could the MWA episodes been shot in summer of 1956 and the original stories episodes shot later when it was known NBC wanted it only as a replacement series?

   Why was Malone’s name changed for “And The Birds Still Sing”? ABC had the TV rights for Malone for the 1951-52 TV series but apparently did not keep them after cancelling THE AMAZING MR. MALONE. The series last episode aired March 10, 1952.

         BONUS RESEARCH – CRAIG RICE THEATRE:

   “Billboard” (June 26, 1952) reported CRAIG RICE THEATRE planned to go into production in August 1952 for Eagle-Lion Studio in Hollywood. Tony London would produce the half-hour series based on the work of Craig Rice. Sam Neuman would adapt the stories and direct. July 14, 1952 “Broadcasting” magazine added Tony London (FRANK MERRIWELL) had acquired the TV-Film rights to 352 story properties by Craig Rice. “Billboard” (September 6, 1952) listed CRAIG RICE THEATRE available for syndication but no pilot had yet been filmed.

   Skip ahead to 1954, “Billboard” (September 27, 1954) CRAIG RICE was still a possible project with Tony London still the producer and Sam Neuman adapting Rice’s work as well as directing. Now McCadden Production (George Burns and Gracie Allen company) was behind the proposed series. The December 18, 1954 “Billboard” quoted producer Tony London’s complaints about the difficulty with finding a willing female star to host CRAIG RICE THEATRE.

   “Billboard” (April 9, 1955) reported ABC-TV president Robert Kintner had discussions with producer Tony London and writer Sam Neuman about the CRAIG RICE series.

   August 1, 1955 “Broadcasting” Ziv-TV plan to produce CRAIG RICE THEATRE but have yet to assign any writers. “Billboard” January 14, 1956 the CRAIG RICE THEATRE is on Ziv-TV production schedule to begin filming in late February or March and currently casting for the female host/lead. “Billboard” (April 7, 1956) Ziv-TV is still trying to sell CRAIG RICE THEATRE for the fall, but still have not found the female/host lead (“Billboard” January 14, 1956). April 7, 1956 “Billboard” has the last mention of CRAIG RICE THEATRE. Ziv-TV hopes to have it ready for the fall but there is no pilot or host/star attached. Tony London remains the project’s producer.

   It is unlikely CRAIG RICE THEATRE ever got beyond planning, unable to ever find the right female star willing to host the series. But the TV rights to her writing seems to have been tied up in the Tony London project from 1952 through at least the fall of 1956 and that could have forced Malone to use his Parnell alias in “And The Birds Still Sing.”

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