Reviewed by JONATHAN LEWIS:         


BLACK LEGION. Warner Bros., 1937. Humphrey Bogart, Dick Foran, Erin O’Brien-Moore, Ann Sheridan, Helen Flint, Joe Sawyer. Director: Archie Mayo.

   Black Legion is a 1937 crime drama/proto-film noir directed by Archie Mayo and starring Humphrey Bogart. The movie is both a good suspense tale and a morality play, an attempt to categorize anti-immigrant vigilantism as distinctly anti-American. Overall, it’s a very good film, rich on atmospherics and with excellent acting by Bogart. Still, it comes across as just a bit too predictable, replete with a lumbering, albeit well-intentioned, political sermon at the very end.

   The plot follows factory worker and dedicated family man Frank Taylor (Bogart) as he spirals ever downward into a self-destructive morass of alcoholism, rage, and political violence.

   After being passed over for a promotion, with the position going instead to a man of Polish heritage, an aggrieved Taylor joins the Black Legion, a Midwest offshoot of the virulently racist Ku Klux Klan. (As an historical aside, it’s interesting to note that the studio considered, but ultimately rejected, the Romanian-Jewish born Edward G. Robinson to portray Taylor).

   For a time at least, Taylor (Bogart) ends up believing the nativist slop served up on the airwaves by the Black Legion. This shortsightedness will be his downfall. His political activities will end up costing him his marriage to his wife, Ruth, (Erin O’Brien Moore) and his friendship with neighbor and work colleague, Ed Jackson (Dick Foran). Ann Sheridan portrays Jackson’s girlfriend, Betty Grogan.

   Along for the ride is Joe Sawyer, portraying the oafish, brute Cliff Summers, a factory worker who introduces him to the Legion and their nefarious activities. While it is Cliff who is responsible for getting Taylor to attend a secret, subterranean Black Legion meeting, it is ultimately Taylor and Taylor alone who is responsible for nearly everything bad that happens next.

   Similar to how the KKK is portrayed in the excellent film, Storm Warning, also a Warner Brothers film which I reviewed here, Black Legion portrays the organization as much as a scam as a nativist organization. The film goes to great lengths to show the audience that the Black Legion’s leadership consists of con men primarily interested in money and profits. They’re selling nativism and a bunch of gullible fools are buying.

   Black Legion isn’t remotely a happy film. Indeed, there is something very noir about both the film and its protagonist. You don’t exactly feel sorry for Taylor at the end when he’s being carted off to prison for his role in the shockingly unnecessary death of his friend, Ed (Foran), who had threatened to expose the Legion’s activities to law enforcement.

   All told, Black Legion remains a very good movie, one that has a powerful, if clumsily delivered message. Unlike many other Bogart films which more than stand the test of time, it just comes across as somewhat dated.

IT’S ABOUT CRIME
by Marv Lachman

FRANK PARRISH – Death in the Rain. Dodd Mead, hardcover, 1984. Perennial Library, paperback, 1986. First published in the UK as Face at the Window (Constable, hardcover, 1984).

   Fans of Dick Francis will enjoy that other master of the narrative, Frank Parrish, whose fifth book about Dan Mallett, Death in the Rain, is in paperback from Perennial Library. We identify with Francis’s heroes and feel every bit of pain inflicted by sadistic villains. With Parrish’s “professional” poacher, we observe nature as if we are also lying on the English ground, feeling the cold and dampness. He is marvelously knowledgeable about the Wessex countryside made famous by Thomas Hardy.

   Death in the Rain plays down the major weakness in prior Mallett books, his long-standing attempt to get money for the hip operation his mother won’t consider free, under British socialized medicine. Yet Mrs. Mallett plays a greater role in this book, and she is a delightful supporting character.

   She and Natasha Chapman, a very believable young actress, help compensate for a plot with some structural weaknesses. There are too many coincidences, too many blackmailers, and too many people simultaneously in (or watching) the murder flat.

   Those are the only flaws I can discuss without giving away too much plot, but suffice it to say that, warts and all, this is as much fun to read as Parrish’s prior novels about one of the more unusual series characters of the 1980s. The first four Mallett books are also available from Perennial and equally recommended.

— Reprinted from The MYSTERY FANcier, Vol. 11, No. 3, Summer 1989.


Bibliographic Notes: Frank Parrish was the pen name of Roger Longrigg. (1929-2000). Under his own name he has two marginal entries in Hubin. Other pseudonyms are: Laura Black (four novels), Ivor Drummond (nine adventures of Jennifer Norrington, Alessandro di Ganzarello & Coleridge Tucker III) and Domini Taylor (nine novels).

       The Dan Mallett series –

Fire in the Barley. Constable, 1977.

Sting of the Honeybee. Constable, 1978.
Snare in the Dark. Constable, 1982.
Bait on the Hook. Constable, 1983.
Face at the Window. Constable, 1984. US: Death in the Rain.
Fly in the Cobweb. Constable, 1986.
Caught in the Birdlime. Constable, 1987. US: Caught in the Net.

Voices from the Dark. Constable, 1993. No US edition.

Reviewed by JONATHAN LEWIS:         


HORIZONS WEST. Universal International, 1952. Robert Ryan, Julie Adams, Rock Hudson, Judith Braun, John McIntire, Raymond Burr, James Arness, Dennis Weaver, Frances Bavier, Tom Powers. Director: Budd Boetticher.

   Horizons West is a very good, albeit uneven, 1952 Universal Studios production directed by Budd Boetticher. Set in and around Austin, Texas, after the Civil War and during Reconstruction, this Western tragedy stars Robert Ryan and Rock Hudson as the brothers, Dan and Neil Hammond.

   As the film progresses, Dan (Ryan) and Neil (Hudson) find themselves on opposite sides of the law, with the latter tasked with bringing in his criminal older brother back to town for trial, culminating in a final interfamilial showdown in a small Mexican town. Dan starts off as a seemingly good guy, but by the end, the man’s done gone bad, irredeemably so.

   The movie benefits from its strong coterie of extremely talented actors. Aside from Ryan and Hudson, the film also stars Raymond Burr, who brilliantly portrays Cole Hardin, a sleazily villainous gambler. There’s something about Burr’s character that’s so devious that one wishes that he weren’t killed off so abruptly.

   And then there’s the lovely Julia Adams (Creature of the Black Lagoon), who portrays Hardin’s wife. She inevitably falls in love with the increasingly arrogant and power-mad Dan Hammond, causing friction between Dan and Cole. Veteran character actor John McIntire portrays the stoic Ira Hammond, owner of the family ranch who watches with alarm as his son, Dan (Ryan) returns home from the war a defeated, but proud Confederate officer, only to morph into to a ruthless and corrupt Texas power player.

   Aside from the skillful acting, Horizons West makes excellent use of vivid and symbolic use of colors (Technicolor works extraordinarily well here) and numerous well-constructed lush interiors. Look for the scene in front of an Austin hotel when Dan Hammond is wearing a red tie and Mrs. Hardin is wearing also wearing red in her attire. It just works perfectly.

   In many ways, the plot is standard, almost cliché Western fare, replete with a soldiers returning home from the Civil War, a good guy gone bad, brothers in conflict, a corrupt and flamboyant Mexican general, cattle rustling, and a lynch mob.

   One can, however, view Horizons West less as a standard Western, and more as a quasi-Greek tragedy set in the American West, similar to Saddle The Wind, which I reviewed here.

   Similarly, one can interpret it as contemporaneous social criticism about how big money can corrupt otherwise good men. Indeed, by the time that the movie ends, the two overtly greedy lead characters, Dan Hammond (Ryan) and Cole Hardin (Burr), have both been killed by gunfire.

   In contrast, in the final moments, the film’s most humble and hardworking characters are prospering in the bounty of the westward movement of people and cattle, hence the seemingly optimistic title of the film. But to the extent that Horizons West is about the rise and tragic fall of Dan Hammond, the film’s French title, Le Traitre du Texas (The Texas Traitor), is more accurate in conveying the film’s classically tragic overtones.

   The film’s greatest flaw is in the fact that we never really get a full sense of what drives Dan Hammond to self-destruction, why he goes power mad. There’s almost no indication that something terrible happened during the war that explains his descent into villainy.

   There are, however, a couple of brief moments that may shed at least some light on the matter. Soon after Dan returns home from the war with his adopted brother, Neil (Hudson) and their family’s ranch hand, Tiny McGilligan (James Arness), he tells his parents that he finds Texas to be too quiet and refers to all the noise he heard during the Civil War.

   But that’s about the last he mentions of this. We never see Dan struggle with his wartime experiences, nor do we ever hear him explain to another character what drives him to cheat and to steal. The other instance is when Dan discusses finances with Ira, his father who still hasn’t paid off the debt on the ranch, something that Dan Hammond seems to find embarrassing. But again, it’s a brief exchange and one that isn’t much referred to later on.

   Still, Horizons West remains a better than average Western. Ryan, Hudson, and Burr are all great actors and it shows. The film’s strongest point is its extraordinary use of color. There are many scenes in which color, rather than dialogue, is the focal point. It’s a movie that explores one man’s descent into greed and violence, but nonetheless remains truly beautiful to behold.

THE BACKWARD REVIEWER
William F. Deeck


FRANCIS ALLAN – First Come, First Kill. Reynal & Hitchcock, hardcover, 1945 Bantam #34, 1946.

   In the midst of her honeymoon, Linda Gordon (née Payne) has to return to New York City because her father had, most unlike him — he’d never done it before, you see — committed suicide. Or so it would seem.

   Luckily, Mr. Payne had previously called in John Storm, private detective, to investigate an attempt at extortion by a singularly strange woman. Storm concludes Payne was murdered, a crime committed by a cool and devious person for gain, and Linda might be next.

   Besides Linda, four men inherit under Payne’s will. Since only one of them is both cool and devious, he must be the murderer. He should have been easy to spot also because he had had to carry a body that had been buried for two weeks without benefit of mortician. Bound to leave its mark, one would think, but this does not occur to Storm.

   Allan’s characters do a lot of gasping, occasionally half gasping. Curiously, the asthmatic doesn’t; instead, he sneezes. They also do a significant amount of communicating with their eyes, which are hot, or sick and vacant, or ex-pressing animal fury, or half angry, though which half is not made clear.

   A strange choice for Bantam to reprint early in its history.

— Reprinted from The MYSTERY FANcier, Vol. 11, No. 3, Summer 1989.


Bibliographic Notes: Francis K. Allan (1916-1997) was a prolific writer for the detective pulps. Assuming the link will stay fixed, you can find a list of some his stories here. Allan was also the author two other hardcover novels: The Invisible Bridge (Reynal, 1947) and Death in Gentle Grove (Mason/Charter, 1976).

THE ARMCHAIR REVIEWER
Allen J. Hubin


GEOFFREY MARSH – The Fangs of the Hooded Demon. Tor, hardcover, 1988; reprint paperback, 1989.

   I’ve not before encountered Geoffrey Marsh and his Lincoln Blackthorne series, of which the present The Fangs of the Hooded Demon is the fourth. Blackthorne is a tailor in New Jersey, of all things, to whom incredible experiences accrue.

   If Demon is any guide, these tales are part mystery and crime, part unresolved fantasy and mysticism, with Blackthorne functioning more or less in the role of private investigator. Or maybe a land-bound Travis McGee.

   Here he’s hired, or maybe forced, to track down the titular fangs, which are bejeweled false teeth with reputed powers of rejuvenation if the right ritual is used at the right time. Various aged and villainous Hollywood rejects want the fangs desperately, and the peril-around-every-corner chase leads to New York, then to Oklahoma, and finally to the oozing swamps of Georgia.

   Frantic and imaginative, and I suspect quite enjoyable if your tastes run to this sort of thing.

— Reprinted from The MYSTERY FANcier,
       Vol. 11, No. 3, Summer 1989.


Bibliographic Note: It is now known that Geoffrey Marsh was one of several pen names used by Charles L. Grant (1942 – 2006), a noted horror and fantasy writer whose books sometimes verged into crime fiction territory, as did the Blackthorne novels.

      The Lincoln Blackthorne series (as by Geoffrey Marsh) –

1. The King of Satan’s Eyes (1984)
2. The Tail of the Arabian, Knight (1986)
3. The Patch of the Odin Soldier (1987)
4. The Fangs of the Hooded Demon (1988)

THE NAKED JUNGLE. Paramount Pictures, 1954. Eleanor Parker, Charlton Heston, Abraham Sofaer, William Conrad. Based on the story “Leiningen versus the Ants,” by Carl Stephenson (Esquire, December 1938); first published in Germany in 1937 as “Leiningens Kampf mit den Ameisen.” Director: Byron Haskin.

   Fans and collectors of Old Time Radio shows will recognize the story this film is based on immediately. “Leiningen versus the Ants” must be among everyone’s all time Top Ten list of favorite episodes. It was produced at least four different times, on Escape 14 Jan 1948, 23 May 1948, 4 Aug 1949, and on Suspense, 29 Nov 1959. You can hear an MP3 version of the first of these here.

   The radio version follows the story itself quite faithfully, that of a stubborn bull-headed plantation owner in South America who refuses to move away from his land in the face of a swarm of deadly ants two miles wide and ten miles long. The only difference is that in the radio version the District Commissioner returns to Leiningen’s compound to see whether (and how) he can make good on his promise to prevail against the deadly horde. He also helps provide half of the necessary narration.

   The story can be read in twenty minutes, and it takes thirty minutes to listen to the radio show. How then is the running time of the movie some 95 minutes long? Easy. Add a preamble about an hour long, one introducing a mail-order bride to the tale, a lady from New Orleans previously unseen by Leiningen.

   Charlton Heston is of course the obvious choice to play Leiningen, a fellow as stubborn and ignorant of the ways of women as he was later on in his portrayal of Captain Colt Saunders in Three Violent People (1956), which I reviewed here not too long ago.

   Of course it could only happen in the movies that the mail-order bride would be as lovely as Eleanor Parker, but leave it to Charlton Heston’s character to reject her almost immediately, once he learns that she has been married once before. (He prides himself on having only new items in his house, including a piano, which of course the new Mrs. Leiningen is able to play, and quite well)

   All in all, it’s sort of dull romance, and you just know that once the danger is over, the two of them will find a way to sort things out between them, if not before. In my opinion, as long as you’re asking me, the time the romantic problems take up could have been shortened considerably, thus giving us more time with the ants. (Some of us, who know full well what is coming in advance, may even be squirming in our seats in anticipation.)

   The special effects are quite good, I hasten to add, and well worth the price of admission. So good, in fact, that I recognized some of the footage as being used again in an episode of the TV series MacGyver, “Trumbo’s World” (Season 1, Episode 6; 10 November 1985).

   And oh yes, one other thing. William Conrad, who played Leiningen in the radio show that I hope you took (or will take) the time to listen to, played the role of the District Commissioner in The Naked Jungle.

  Overall verdict: Medium well but no more.

Reviewed by JONATHAN LEWIS:         


BORDER INCIDENT. MGM, 1949. Ricardo Montalban, George Murphy, Howard Da Silva, James Mitchell, Arnold Moss, Charles McGraw. Director: Anthony Mann.

   Border Incident is a film noir/crime film directed by Anthony Mann. It stars Ricardo Montalban as Pablo Rodriquez, a Mexican federal policeman, and George Murphy as Jack Bearnes, an American immigration agent. Set on the California-Mexico border, the movie follows the two government agents’ collaborative efforts to investigate the murder, and robbery, of Mexican farmworkers.

   Unlike many movies categorized as films noir, there are no femme fatales, snappy bits of dialogue, or urbane gangsters in suits and fedoras.

   There are, however, numerous moments of claustrophobic disorientation, including one stunningly effective sequence filmed on a water tower. There’s also a seedy neon-lit bar glimmering in the desert night and the harrowing murder scene of a helpless man. In Border Incident, nature is as noir as the city, with a desert canyon and quicksand proving that they can be just as deadly as a dame with a gun.

   The film begins in a semi-documentary style, leading the viewer to believe he is about to watch a standard crime drama in which the good guys defeat the bad guys, everyone will slap each other on the back, and go out for drinks. When we first meet Pablo Rodriquez (Montalban) and Bearnes (Murphy), they are both clean, well dressed, and in good spirits.

   It soon becomes apparent, however, that they’re not about to face anything typical. From the moment that Rodriquez goes undercover and befriends Juan Garcia (James Mitchell), a Mexican farm worker who wants to cross illegally, we get the sense that things aren’t going to go smoothly after all.

   Anthony Mann sets the mood perfectly. The Mexican side of the border is chaotic, disorienting, and filled with sketchy characters that come out at night. Among them are the Teutonic-looking Hugo Wolfgang Ulrich (Sig Ruman), the proprietor of a lowlife bar, and his two thugs, Cuchillo (Alfonso Bedoya) and Zipilote (Arnold Moss). Although we never learn what a gruff German bar owner is doing in a border town, we do soon learn that he’s knee-deep in crime and is willing to utilize brute force against his perceived enemies.

   As it turns out, Hugo is working with with an American farm owner on the other side of the border, a creepy looking guy by the name of Owen Parkson (Howard Da Silva) who treats his land like a plantation, and his workers like pawns on a chessboard. Parkson, along with his chief henchman, Jeff Amboy (Charles McGraw), are true villains. There’s nothing remotely amusing, let alone redeemable, about these two guys. Da Silva and McGraw may not have had star billing, but they are very effective in portraying criminals indifferent to human life and suffering.

   Rodriquez and Bearnes succeed in infiltrating Parkson’s estate, but nothing goes according to plan. Both men face dangers that seem to come out of nowhere, or at least take them by surprise. It’s as if both men never expected to face such adversity in their current assignment. There are some very tense moments, almost all of which take place at night.

   Border Incident isn’t a particularly well-known film noir, but it’s a very good one. The film successfully encapsulates many aspects of the noir genre, from the focus on the dark side of human nature to Mann’s skillful use of shadow and lighting to convey meaning. It’s a dark film, both metaphorically, and in its cinematography. Although it wasn’t a box office success, it is nevertheless a good example of what a talented director can do on a meager budget. Highly recommended.

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