Reviewed by JONATHAN LEWIS:         


JOHNNY APOLLO. 20th Century Fox, 1940. Tyrone Power, Dorothy Lamour, Edward Arnold, Lloyd Nolan, Charley Grapewin, Lionel Atwill, Marc Lawrence. Director: Henry Hathaway.

   Johnny Apollo is an crime film that benefits greatly from an exceptional cast, good pacing, and notable proto-noir characteristics. Directed by Henry Hathaway, the film stars a dynamic Tyrone Power as Bob Cain, a somewhat idealist college student who, in order to help get his embezzler father (Edward Arnold) out of state prison, transforms himself into a lightweight gangster named Johnny Apollo. Of no real help to him is his father’s unpalatable lawyer, portrayed by Lionel Atwill.

   The story follows Cain (Power) as he teams up with a crooked and drunken attorney, Emmett Brennan (Charley Grapewin), and a gangster named Mickey Dwyer (Lloyd Nolan), to earn money so he can get his father out of prison. Joining them on their not particularly wild ride through crime is Dwyer’s girl, Lucky (Dorothy Lamour), who begins to loathe Dwyer. She also develops romantic feelings for Johnny Apollo/Bob Cain.

   Things get dicey when Brennan decides to double cross Dwyer. This leads us to an ice pick scene wherein Dwyer kills Brennan, a scene that begins with a staff member in a Turkish/Russian bath utilizing an ice pick. You just know what’s coming next! And if that’s not enough, the staff member leaves his workstation with the pick stuck there alone in the pile of ice. The camera captures it perfectly. Soon enough, Dwyer picks up the ice pick and enters the steam room. You don’t see him kill Brennan, but the callous nature of the crime is implied.

   Dwyer (Nolan) is a brute and a sadist, but he’s also capable of charm and genuine affection. In some ways, he is a more urbane, but crueler, version of Bogart’s character in The Petrified Forest. Bob Cain/Johnny Apollo is clearly the film’s protagonist, but Dwyer is just a bit more interesting of a character. Much as in The Texas Rangers, which I recently reviewed here, Nolan is very good in portraying a villain.

   About those noir characteristics I mentioned earlier. Shadow and lighting are often utilized to convey meaning. When we first see Nolan’s character, he’s standing in a courtroom waiting to be sentenced. His face is haggard and dark, signifying his violent side. Later on, upon being freed from jail and now back in his familiar surroundings with Lucky by his side, his face appears significantly lighter in tone.

   Power’s character’s psychological descent is also conveyed through changes in lighting. When we first see him, he’s college student Bob Cain, not Johnny Apollo. He has a soft face and is resplendent in the sunshine, palling around with his college classmates and posing for a photograph shirtless. After transforming himself into Johnny Apollo, however, he soon gets a black eye in an altercation with one of Dwyer’s former associates.

   Worse still is Johnny Apollo’s appearance upon visiting his father in prison for the first time. We see his darkened face, almost angular like Dwyer’s through bars, foreshadowing what fate awaits him in the near future. In one of the film’s next-to-final, albeit very brief, scenes, set in a darkened prison cell, we see Johnny Apollo without a trace of that soft light in which we first saw cheerful Bob Cain.

   The film’s biggest flaw is in its slightly clumsy method of introducing its characters. The first two people we see in the movie are Bob “Pop” Cain (Arnold) and his lawyer (Atwill). For the next half hour or so, Atwill seems as though he’s going to be a significant figure in the film, but he soon disappears completely.

   The scene in which Dwyer (Nolan) is first introduced, however, is very brief and is immediately followed by a couple of quick scenes in which random, unimportant characters, such Pop Cain’s cellmate are introduced, never really to be seen or heard much from again.

   When we first see Brennan, he’s merely standing by Dwyer’s side at the latter’s sentencing. Although he makes a few facial expressions, he doesn’t have a speaking part in the film until later on. I found this an odd way to introduce a character that the plot will ultimately turn upon. That said, the film’s strengths greatly outweigh its weaknesses.

   In conclusion, Johnny Apollo is an eminently watchable and significantly above average crime film. Although the film does have some proto-noir characteristics and a seemingly doomed protagonist, it ends up having a light, happy, and somewhat pat ending.

   But the film does show the dark side of human nature. It also touches upon the question of fate and destiny. Look, in particular, for the black (or dark colored) cat crossing Bob Cain’s path right before he ascends the staircase to Brennan’s office for the very the first time. That tells you something.

REVIEWED BY DAN STUMPF:         


THE MIGHTY GORGA. American General Pictures, 1969. Starring Anthony Eisley, Megan Timothy, Scott Brady and Bruce Kimball. Written and directed by David L. Hewitt.

   Required viewing for bad movie buffs, this ranks right up there with Mesa of Lost Women and Robot Monster. Unlike those alternative classics, Mighty Gorga is in color, but that doesn’t help much — you can still see it.

   Anthony Eisley, once a star on network TV (Hawaiian Eye) stars as a circus owner fallen on hard times (not unlike the actor himself) who journeys to Africa in search of Great White Hunter Tonga Jack Adams, who can lead him to a legendary-jungle-monster-cum-boffo-box-office-attraction. Africa in this case appears to be the woods behind somebody’s back yard and the familiar landscape of Bronson Canyon, the perennial location of B westerns, here augmented by the sounds of jungle wildlife on the soundtrack: exotic birds (Bop-ooop-ooop-whaah-whaah-whaah!) lions and elephants, never seen but gamely referred to by the assorted players looking off-screen.

   It turns out Great White Hunter Tonga Jack Adams has been missing since the last safari; not to fear, though: his comely daughter (Megan Timothy) is running things in his absence, despite sabotage from a competing Great White Hunter, played by Scott Brady. Driven to desperate measures, Tony and Megan trek off into the ersatz jungle, guided by Tonga Jack’s treasure map.

   (Incidentally, Brady’s sabotage consists of setting fire to April’s animal compound, which might have been more convincing had the scenes matched up: he sets his fire at night and the characters react to it in the daytime — just a hint of things to come.)

   Writer/Director Hewitt ratchets up the tension (?) by cutting away frequently to scenes of the giant ape Gorga plodding amok through the jungle (?) terrorizing a native village that seems to be built of bamboo screens and 4’ x 8” plywood sheets, and it’s fitting to put in a word here about the monster: The Mighty Gorga is played mostly by someone in the top half of a really bad gorilla suit, with immobile features and cute button eyes. I say “top half” because we only get to see The Mighty G from the waist up, photographed from low-angles with bushes (standing in for tree-tops) in the foreground to attempt the illusion of height. Nice try.

   Anyway, our trepid explorers finally meet up with Mister G just in time to see him fight a Tyrannosaurus Rex in a burst of truly deplorable special effects. The T-Rex is represented by a plastic toy resembling a Pez Head, and for the fight scenes The Mighty Gorga is played by a hand puppet (his stunt double?) and his only visible wound is to get a splinter in his finger, which is removed by our plucky heroine, thus earning the monster’s undying gratitude, and there’s a lesson here for all of us, if we only look for it.

   Well, I know you’re all anxious to hear how this all comes out for yourselves, and I won’t spoil the ending for you except to say that Great White Hunter Tonga Jack is reunited with his daughter, they find the lost treasure (which looks like stuff from the clearance bin in the “Everything-for-a-Dollar” store) romance blossoms, the volcano explodes and—damn, I gave away the ending, didn’t I? Oh well, these reviews can’t all be gems of critical insight.

   But to conclude on a cheerier note, I should add that the acting in The Mighty Gorga is mostly better than you’d expect. Anthony Eisley, Kent Taylor and Scott Brady had all seen palmier days, but they trudge through this with admirable resolve and not a hint of embarrassment.

   Megan Timothy, who mostly appeared in Russ Meyer films, does the heroine duties capably, and really the only thespic disappointment is Bruce Kimball (star of several 60s skin-flicks) as the Native Medicine Man; decked out in a sarong and Cleopatra wig, he spends the movie summoning the monster with enthusiasm, but seems unable to get the New Yawk out of his voice, resulting in lines like: “Oh, Mighty Gawga, de infidels have come ta steal yoah treashah!” Immortal stuff for fans of bad filmmaking.

THE ARMCHAIR REVIEWER
Allen J. Hubin


M. R. D. MEEK – A Mouthful of Sand. Scribner’s, hardcover, 1989. Worldwide, paperback, 1990. First published in the UK by Collins, hardcover, 1988.

   I quite like M.R.D. Meek’s stories about Lennox Kemp, and A Mouthful of Sand is no exception. Kemp, a lawyer, was barred from practice when he took money to pay his wife’s gambling debts. She disappeared along with his reputation, and he served a lonely six years’ penance as a private investigator.

   Now he’s back in the law, doing very well, having a relationship (albeit uneasy) with Penelope Marsden. His life is coming back together; perhaps he will marry Penelope and banish the loneliness he fears so much.

   Here a tycoon asks him for a written opinion on the state of British marriage law. Lennox complies, then [leaves] to go on vacation to Cornwall, coincidentally to the coastal town where the tycoon’s wife has gone to recover from severe depression. But her condition worsens, and the battered head of a man is found on the beach. Soon Kemp finds himself ensnared — heart and mind.

   Very effective storytelling, full of subtleties and dense with expressive language.

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


Bio-Bibliographic Notes: Since Lennox Kemp is a Private Eye, there’s no place better to look for information about him than the Thrilling Detective website. There Kevin Burton Smith says, in part: “… while waiting to be reinstated (the events leading up to his disbarment are related in the first book in the series), he earns his daily bread as an op for the London-based McCready’s Detective Agency. But he is eventually reinstated, and this spare yet often elegant series, full of rich characterization, and sharp writing, continues, with Kemp as a particular hands-on type of attornney, part Perry Mason and part Lew Archer.”

   His creator was in real life Margaret Reid Duncan Meek (1918-2009), a retired lawyer.

       The Lennox Kemp series —

With Flowers That Fell (1983)

The Sitting Ducks (1984)
Hang the Consequences (1984)
The Split Second (1985)
In Remembrance of Rose (1986)

A Worm of Doubt (1987)
A Mouthful of Sand (1988)
A Loose Connection (1989)
This Blessed Plot (1990)
Touch and Go (1992)

Postscript to Murder (1996)
If You Go Down to the Woods (2001)
The Vanishing Point (2003)
Kemp’s Last Case (2004)

L. P. HOLMES – Destiny Range. Leisure, paperback, March 2009. First book publication: Greenberg, hardcover, 1936. First appeared in Five-Novels Monthly, May 1932; reprinted in Popular Western, October 1951.

   Dex Sublette, foreman of the Pinon Ranch, and all of the cowhands working for him are surprised to learn that the retired owner has sold the spread to a woman — and a Russian princess, to boot. They do not take the news with delight:

    “I thought I had hard luck when a bronc kicked in two ribs for me,” Shorty groaned. “But I didn’t know what hard luck was. A Russian Princess for a boss! Holy cow! If that ain’t awful! I’ll bet she’ll be a string-necked old battle-axe, soured on the world — and the male sex in particular. I’ll bet she’ll take an unholy delight in raw-hiding us to a fare-ye-well. I’ll bet–”

   Shorty couldn’t be more wrong. The young lady is Sonia Stephanovich, or at least it used to be. She now wishes to be called Sonia Stephens. Having fled the Russian Revolution with only a maid and a few belongings, she now hopes to build a new life in this section of the American West she once visited as a child.

   As for being a string-necked old battle-axe:

    Her face was a delicate oval, slightly high of cheekbone. Her skin was a dusky, smooth ivory. Her lips were bewitching. The lower one was particularly full and rich and crimson, and it gave to her expression an elfin impudence which was a delight. Here and there, from beneath the edges of her hat, a few threads of black, silken haur showed. She made an absorbing, stirring picture as she stood there, half defiantly, half appealingly.

   And of course all of the men on the ranch who now call her boss are smitten, but no more than Dex Sublette himself. The story that follows is as much a romance as it is a western novel, with all of the ups and downs and pitfalls that are bound to arise when two human beings of opposite sexes and opposite ways of life meet and are attracted to each other.

   Until, that is, page 150 or so, of a 240 page story, when Dex learns that Sonia has been kidnapped and all hell breaks loose. Not everyone survives the battle between good guys and bad, but does true love prevail? I’ll bet you already know the answer to that.

   To be honest, though, in spite of all the heroics, flying bullets and tragic deaths that occur in the last third of the book, I enjoyed the on again, off again romance in the first part of the book quite a lot more, as contrived and as (dare I say it?) corny as it reads to a modern reader today.

THE BACKWARD REVIEWER
William F. Deeck


HENRI WEINER – Crime on the Cuff. William Morrow, hardcover, 1936.

   Cartoonists who are detectives are rare. Also infrequent are one-armed detectives. In this novel, John Brass combines the two as he investigates a dual kidnapping plus murder on his doorstep. Meant to be amusing and exciting, the novel fails on both scores.

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


Bio-Bibliographic Notes:   This is the one of two mystery novels by author Stephen Longstreet (1907-2002) published under this name. The other is The Case of the Severed Skull, a paperback reprint of Death Walks on Cat Feet (1938), published in hardcover as by Paul Haggard.

   Also in the late 30s Longstreet wrote three other works of crime fiction as by Haggard, all three with a series character named Mike Warlock, about whom I know nothing, in spite of the interesting sounding name.

   As a literary novelist and playwright, Stephen Longstreet turns out to be significant enough to have a Wikipedia page of his own, and as a screenwriter, even more credits on IMDb. Says the biography page for him there: “Studied in Paris and at Rutgers and Harvard Universities, graduating from the New York School of Fine and Applied Art (Parsons) in 1929. [...] Writer, cartoonist, and painter. He published over one hundred novels and five books on jazz, illustrated with his own drawings and watercolors.”

Reviewed by JONATHAN LEWIS:         


THE BIG STEAL. RKO Radio Pictures, 1949. Robert Mitchum, Jane Greer, William Bendix, Patric Knowles, Ramon Novarro, Don Alvarado, John Qualen. Screenplay: Daniel Mainwaring (as Geoffrey Homes) & Gerald Drayson Adams, based on the story “The Road to Carmichael’s” by Richard Wormser (The Saturday Evening Post, 19 September 1942). Director: Don Siegel.

   The Big Steal is an action-packed crime film starring Robert Mitchum and Jane Greer, the duo best known for their work together in Jacques Tourneur’s Out of the Past. Although it’s not as nearly as artistic as the better-known Tourneur film, The Big Steal is very much a solid piece of filmmaking. It benefits from not only from its strong cast, but also by its excellent pacing.

   Directed by Don Siegel, whose great crime film, The Lineup, I reviewed here, The Big Steal defies easy categorization. It’s not so much a film noir as it is a hard-boiled crime film, replete with terse dialogue, witty and sarcastic banter between the two leads. Shifting allegiances also figure prominently. Plus, there’s a thrilling car chase sequence that predates Anthony Mann’s well-known car chase through a visually claustrophobic Manhattan in Side Street.

   There’s something of light comedic aspect to The Big Steal, making it a bit less hard-boiled and more of a good old-fashioned, south of the border caper. Did I mention there’s a shootout between Mitchum’s character and some Mexican hired thugs that’s more reminiscent of a Western than anything out of what’s typically thought of as film noir?

   The plot basics are as follows. Duke Halliday (Mitchum) arrives in Mexico in pursuit of Army payroll cash that he alleges was stolen by Jim Fiske (Patric Knowles). He teams up with Joan Graham (Greer), who was cheated out of a comparatively meager sum of cash by Fiske, with whom she was having some sort of romantic liaison back in the States.

   The two attempt to track down Fiske, all the while being pursued by the haplessly ineffectually U.S. Army Captain Vincent Blake (William Bendix). Adding to the cat-and-mouse aspect is a Mexican law enforcement officer by the name of Ortega (Ramon Novarro) who is eager to let Halliday and Graham lead him to Fiske. All the while, Ortega has time to practice his English and ogle pretty Mexican girls poolside. John Qualen rounds out the cast as Seton, the film’s quirky, art collecting arch-villain.

   With the notable exception of the final showdown, The Big Steal isn’t a particularly moody film. It’s not much of a psychological study, either. It’s simply a significantly above average late 1940s crime film with a coterie of colorful characters, all chasing one another up and down Mexican streets. It may not be one of Mitchum’s iconic roles, but he’s really quite good here.

   There’s one scene in which he sits backward in a chair, smirking at his rival. It’s a pretty much perfect moment in a film that overall works very well. As for Greer, she’s no femme fatale in this. She’s just a gal along for the ride. All told, it’s a pretty entertaining one.

IT’S ABOUT CRIME
by Marv Lachman

R. AUSTIN FREEMAN – The Eye of Osiris. Hodder & Stoughton, UK, hardcover, 1911. First US edition: Dodd Mead, hardcover, 1912. Reprinted many times, including Carroll & Graf, paperback, 1986. Available online here.

   Carroll & Graf has logically followed its publication of R. Austin Freeman’s first Dr. Thorndyke novel, The Red Thumb Mark, with the second in that series, The Eye of Osiris. (There is an as yet unreprinted collection of short stories, John Thorndyke’s Cases, which is sandwiched in the Freeman chronology by these novels.)

   In Osiris the detective’s Watson (a doctor named Jarvis) is relegated to the sidelines, and another young-doctor-in-love narrates. We get such wonderful corny passages as “Reverently I folded her in my arms, gathered her to the heart that worshiped her utterly. Henceforth no sorrows could hurt us, no misfortune vex, for we should walk hand in hand on our earthly pilgrimage and find the way all too short,” and “…the light of her love went with me and turned the dull street into a path of glory.”

   Not to worry. These sections of purple prose do not detract (they actually provide comic relief) from a well-plotted mystery about the disappearance, in the heart of London, of a noted Egyptologist. Freeman combines a considerable narrative gift with detailed knowledge of medicine (skeleton bones keep popping up all over England) and many aspects of the law.

   There are two legal proceedings which are described with delicious satire. I found myself laughing aloud, though this is not the reaction I expected in approaching R Austin Freeman. The solution is ingenious, though it helps if you’ve been to medical school if you want to compete with Dr. Thorndyke in arriving at it.

   Unfortunately, the denouement is dragged out too long, contributing to this book being a whopping 344 pages.

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

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