Reviewed by JONATHAN LEWIS:         


CORNERED. RKO Radio Pictures, 1945. Dick Powell, Walter Slezak, Micheline Cheirel, Nina Vale, Morris Carnovsky, Edgar Barrier, Steven Geray. Director: Edward Dmytryk

   Cornered is the type of suspense film where, for a time at least, you really don’t have a clue exactly where you’re headed. But you’re in good company, because the film’s protagonist doesn’t really know what’s going on all around him, either. It’s not the easiest plot structure to pull off in a book, let alone a film.

   You’d surely agree with me that far too many crime films have been ruined by a director holding back important information about what’s going on from the viewer without his ultimately, and successfully, clearing the obfuscation so as to bring the plot to a satisfying conclusion. Sometimes, trying to do too much to give the film an air of mystery ends up letting all the air out of the proverbial bag.

   In Edward Dymytrk’s Cornered, however, the mystifying and suspenseful plot ultimately works quite well. This is thanks in no small part to the film’s casting of Dick Powell as Laurence Gerard, a Royal Canadian Air Force pilot on the hunt for a Nazi collaborator, and Walter Slezak as Melchior Incza, an enterprising scoundrel who serves as Gerard’s Virgil on a tour of the war criminal underground of Buenos Aries. Powell and Slezak are both such talented actors that you don’t mind being temporarily in the dark.

   On the surface, at least, the plot is fairly straightforward. The Second World War is officially over. Unofficially, of course, there are many unresolved issues. The murder of Laurence Gerard’s French wife is one of them. Gerard resolves that he will track down his wife’s killer, a French collaborator by the name of Marcel Jarnac. He travels from France to Switzerland and then to Argentina on the hunt for the mysterious man.

   Once he arrives in Buenos Aires, Gerard is immediately thrust into a web of deception and psychological turmoil. He’s not sure whom to trust or who is lying to him. All the while, he is struggling with headaches, a reminder that the recently concluded war’s casualties include those struggling with post-traumatic stress.

   Among the nefarious, or potentially dangerous people he encounters are the enigmatic Melchior Incza (Slezak), the sophisticated Argentinian lawyer, Manuel Santana (Morris Carnovsky), and a woman who is thought to be Jarnac’s wife (Micheline Cheirel). All the players seem to have hidden agendas.

   But Gerard is a man on a mission of revenge and will not heed calls to abandon his task, no matter what the cost. He descends deeper into the shadowy underground of Buenos Aires, all culminating in a violent showdown on the waterfront in which we finally see the unassuming Jarnac. He looks like he could easily blend into a crowd without anyone noticing something was amiss.

   And that’s the point. Fascism hides in plain sight. It is Jarnac, in his discussion with a captive Gerard, who most clearly enunciates the film’s strong anti-fascist message and warning: the Second World War may be over, but fascists like him still live, hidden both in plain sight and in the shadows.

   In conclusion, Cornered is both a suspense film and an early example of film noir. Gerard is caught up is a labyrinth of uncertainty, often subject to historical forces well out of his control. Many of the film’s pivotal scenes occur in interior settings, well away from the disinfectant power of bright sunlight. Nowhere is this the case more striking than in a beautifully filmed sequence in the Buenos Aires subway in which a traumatized Gerard struggles to maintain his composure in a broken world.

THE BACKWARD REVIEWER
William F. Deeck



BEVERLEY NICHOLS Horatio Green

BEVERLEY NICHOLS – The Moonflower Murder. E. P. Dutton, UK, hardcover, 1955. First published in the UK: Hutchinson, hardcover, 1955, as The Moonflower.

   In his second recorded case since his retirement as a private detective, Horatio Green is in Dartmoor in hopes of viewing the blooming of the fabulous Moonflower, transported at great expense from South America. Since he had some twenty-five years earlier investigated a jewelry theft for the owner of the Moonflower, Green had been invited to her estate to view the plant.

   The plant does bloom, forty-eight hours early, but its owner is not there to view it. Someone had strangled her and made off with her jewels.

   Since Superintendent Waller of Scotland Yard — both a friend and rival of Green’s — is in the area dealing with a recent escape from Princetown Prison, he begins an investigation of the crime with Green’s help. With the aid of his keen olfactory sense, Green identifies the culprit, while I wondered about genetics and slipshod post-mortems.

   Nichols’ first novel featuring Green — No Man’s Street — seemed to me to be a book by an accomplished author feeling his way into the mystery field, and thus left something to be desired. He does much better here.

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


NOTE:   Bill’s review of Murder by Request, also by Beverley Nichols, was posted here earlier on this blog. Following that review is some biographical information about the author and a complete listing of his Horatio Green series.

TRIGGER FINGERS. Monogram Pictures, 1946. Johnny Mack Brown, Sam Hurricane Benton, Raymond Hatton, Jennifer Holt, Riley Hill, Steve Clark, Eddie Parker. Director: Lambert Hillyer.

   By the time the 1940s came around and almost every movie that Johnny Mack Brown made was a western, and a B-western at that, he was not exactly fat, or perhaps even overweight, but he was, shall we say, chunky, and not exactly what a small kid’s idea of what a western star should look like.

   The small kid being me. My cowboy heroes were Roy Rogers, Gene Autry, Lash LaRue and the Durango Kid. After that came a bunch of other fellows: Rex Allen, Monte Hale, Johnny Mack Brown and a few more. I won’t mention any that I omitted, so not to embarrass anyone, but I will point out another reason I might not have mentioned one of your favorites, such as the fact that Hopalong Cassidy’s movies never seemed to play in my small Michigan town.

   In any case, Trigger Fingers is the first movie starring Johnny Mack Brown that I’ve seen in maybe 65 years, and even though there wasn’t much a plot, nor even a lot of action, I enjoyed it.

   Turns out that someone wants some land owned by Raymond Hatton’s character, and when his son is framed for killing a fellow card player, that someone and his gang think they have a means of forcing a sale through a little judicious blackmail.

   Little do they know that Hatton has a good friend in Sam “Hurricane” Benton, who’s calm demeanor and soft Alabaman drawl belies a quick wit and even quicker trigger finger. I don’t know if that’s where the title of the movie comes from, but it works for me.

  AGATHA CHRISTIE – The Boomerang Clue. Dodd Mead, US, hardcover, 1935. First published in the UK as Why Didn’t They Ask Evans? Collins, hardcover, 1934. Reprinted many times in both hardcover and paperback, including Dell #46, mapback edition, no date [1944]. TV movie: London Weekend Television, 1980 (Francesca Annis & James Warwick). TV movie: ITV, 2009 (an episode of Agatha Christie’s Marple).

   Don’t get the wrong idea about that last TV series adaptation. This is not a Miss Marple mystery, and not only was a very loud outcry about shoehorning a character into the story who didn’t belong there, but also how they badly botched the story line itself, or so I’ve read.

   I’ve not seen this particular Marple adaptation, but (speaking generally) if there’s a perfectly fine story line that you’re working from, why mess around with it? Perhaps the producers thought that people watching their adaptation had never read the book. Perhaps the plan was to pull the rug out from under the feet of those who had, to give them a “surprise” ending.

   But do you know, it doesn’t really matter. We’ll always have the book, and it’s a good one. I don’t know why, but I’m always surprised to pick up an Agatha Christie novel and discover all over again how readable she is. I started this one rather late at night, thinking to read a chapter or so, and an hour later I’d finished ten. Chapters, that is. It isn’t easy to write stories that read as easily as this, but it has to be one of the reasons Christie’s books are still in bookstores today and 99.9% of her contemporaries are not.

   This one begins with a young Bobby Jones (not the famous one) hitting a golf ball and doing dreadfully at it, trying mightily several swings in succession, but hearing a cry, discovers a dying man lying at the bottom of cliff. He had fallen perhaps, as Bobby and his golfing partner believe, not to mention the police and the coroner’s jury, but we the reader know better.

   Before he dies, though, the man utters a dying question: “Why didn’t they ask Evans?” We are at page 9 and the end of Chapter One, and anyone who can stop here is a better person than I.

   Assisting Bobby in his quest for the truth, especially after surviving being poisoned by eight grains of morphia, is his childhood friend, Lady Frances Derwent, whom he calls Frankie. Together they make a great pair of amateur detectives, continuing to investigate the case even after the authorities have written the man’s death off as an accident.

   The tone is light and witty, as if investigating a murder is a lark, but this intrepid pair of detectives do an excellent job of it, even to the extent of faking an automobile accident and inserting an “invalid” Frankie into their primary suspect’s home.

   Before continuing, I’ll stop a moment here and point out that Bobby is the son of a vicar and a former Naval officer, while Frankie’s father is a Lord and extremely wealthy. The difference in social standing means little to Frankie, all but oblivious to her wealth, but it does to Bobby, who finds himself more and more infatuated with the young beautiful wife of a doctor they suspect is behind the plot, to Frankie’s displeasure, although the woman may be the man’s next victim herself. (This does not mean that Frankie is averse to using her position in life to help their investigation along.)

   The tone does get darker as Bobby and Frankie close in on the killer, and at the same time, the threads of the plot get more and more complicated. I’d have rather the story stay focused on the detection, but toward the end it becomes more and more a thriller. It couldn’t be helped. The essential clue is there all of the time, but nothing could be deduced from it until the book has only 15 pages to go, but making the renamed US title at lat make sense.

   In summary, here’s a book that’s immensely fun to read, with a delightful couple doing the honors in investigating a crime the police do not even realize was a crime, dreaming up various scenarios and coming up with sundry plots to incriminate the killer. Coincidences abound, but who cares?

REVIEWED BY WALTER ALBERT:         


THE SEA HAWK. First National Pictures, 1924. Milton Sills, Enid Bennett, Lloyd Hughes, Wallace MacDonald, Marc MacDermott, Wallace Beery, Frank Currier, Medea Radzina, William Collier, J. Lionel Belmore. Based on a novel by Rafael Sabatini. Director: Frank Lloyd. Shown at Cinefest 26, Syracuse NY, March 2006.

   The Sea Hawk was a substitution for the originally scheduled L’Argent (1929; Marcel L’Herbier, director) L’Argent was certainly the film I was looking forward to with the most anticipation. However, although I’d seen The Sea Hawk more than once and have a Turner showing on tape, I didn’t miss the opportunity to watch it again.

   Some of you will be familiar with the Errol Flynn remake (WB, 1940), although the silent version is more faithful to Sabatini’s novel than the later version, which eliminates the extensive Moorish section that’s one of the glories of this film.

   When Sir Oliver Tressilian (Sills) is betrayed by his villainous younger brother and delivered into the greedy hands of rascally Jasper Leigh (Beery), his Christian upbringing is so damaged by his sense of outrage that when he falls into the hands of Moorish pirates, he quickly becomes Sakr-el-Bahr, the “Sea Hawk,” Muslim scourge of the high seas, and the favorite of Asad-el-Din, Sasha of Algiers, much to the chagrin of the Sasha’s favorite wife and heir apparent son.

   Enid Bennett, the lovely star of Hairpins, and Sir Oliver’s intended bride until his betrayal, is imprisoned in unbecoming costumes that mask her beauty until she’s captured by Moorish pirates (guess who?) and put up for auction, her clothes in tatters that reveal something of her native charms, and sold to… guess who again?

   Beery is a rascal, but lovable, and Sills is a splendid corsaire, with a focused rage that distinguishes his portrayal from that of the rakish, devil-may-care Flynn. I like both portrayals and both films.

   Now, the downside: this was, for much of the screening, an inferior print that only occasionally incorporated a reel of superior quality, most notably during the Moorish episodes. Of course, I missed the great score that Korngold composed for the sound remake, but the accompanist was more than competent.

A 1001 MIDNIGHTS Review
by Bill Pronzini


MEL ARRIGHI – Alter Ego. St. Martin’s, hardcover, 1983. No paperback edition. TV movie: CBS, 1987, as Murder by the Book (with Robert Hays as D.H. ‘Hank’ Mercer / Biff Deegan, and Catherine Mary Stewart).

   Hank Mercer is a New York mystery writer, author of such modest best sellers as Death Is My Bedmate and Kill Me Tender. Biff Deegen is Hank’s series sleuth, a hard-boiled private eye patterned after Mike Hammer. Hank is tired of Biff and Biff’s uncouth style; he wants to scrap him and begin a new series about an erudite, tasteful detective named Amos Frisby.

   His editor, Norman Wagstaff. is of course opposed to the idea vehemently. But to placate Hank, who after all is one of his top authors, he agrees over lunch to the following bargain: If Hank can solve a real-life mystery, using Frisby’s methods of deduction, then he trade Riff in for Amos.

   What precipitates this bargain — and what starts Hank off on his all-too-real mystery — is a matchbook dropped on their lunch table by a well-dressed woman, containing the scrawled words “Help me.”

   The mystery involves a valuable statue called The Etruscan Dancer, some urbane crooks, some not so urbane crooks, sexy Marisa Winfield, a poker game, a daring rescue accomplished by Hank using methods better suited to the Human Fly, a chase through the Lexington Avenue subway and, as it were, the piece de resistance: Biff Deegen.

   Biff, you see, steps out of the pages of his own books to become a character in Hank’s real-life mystery.He doesn’t really come to life, of course; he is merely an anthropomorphized figment of Hank’s overworked imagination, his creator’s alter ego. But that doesn’t stop him from becoming Hank’s detective “partner,” sneering at the likes of Amos Frisby and appearing at tense moments to advise Hank on the finer points of physical combat (“Kick him in the balls!”).

   This amusing and affectionate spoof of both genres seems to have been intended as the first of a series– it is billed on the dust jacket as “A Hank & Riff Mystery” — but so far no second book has appeared. Arrighi’s other criminous novels are much more serious in tone; these include such first-rate titles as Freak-Out (1968), The Hatchet Man (1975), Turkish White (1977), the Hitchcockian thriller Delphine (1981), and Manhattan Gothic (1985).

         ———
   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.

NOTE: Mel Arrighi died in 1986 at the relatively young age of only 53. If it so happened that he wrote another book in this series, it was never published before he died.

Reviewed by JONATHAN LEWIS:         


EDGE OF DARKNESS. Warner Brothers, 1943. Errol Flynn, Ann Sheridan, Walter Huston, Nancy Coleman, Helmut Dantine, Judith Anderson, Ruth Gordon, John Beal, Morris Carnovsky. Director: Lewis Milestone.

   Many of Errol Flynn’s movies have a sense of lightness to them. That’s often what makes them such watchable, timeless films. Flynn is most often cast alongside two comical companions or in singular pursuit of a lovely girl who initially despises him, but eventually comes to love him.

   He’s the gentleman forced into fighting for a just cause. Think the swashbuckling Captain Blood (1935) or the epic, iconic Dodge City (1939). They are adventure stories, where Flynn portrays the elegant good guy who defeats the bad guy and, in the end, gets the girl. But there’s a sense that all the fisticuffs and gunfighting have been in good fun, even if more than a few people have gotten banged up or shot down along the way.

   Edge of Darkness, while an exceptionally good war movie, is neither fun, nor would one would call a happy film. Indeed, it’s one Errol Flynn movie where he doesn’t portray a particularly elegant man and there aren’t any bad guys, at least not in the lighthearted sense of the term.

   In Edge of Darkness, a story about Norwegian resistance fighters during the Second World War, the proverbial bad guys – the Nazis – aren’t merely bad. They are evil. And they can’t be reasoned with, tricked into changing their ways, or laughed aside. They must be killed. It’s this premise, coupled with great cinematography and superb performances by Flynn, Ann Sheridan, Walter Huston, and Helmut Dantine, that set this beautifully gritty Warner Brothers war film apart from other anti-Nazi films of the era.

   Directed by Lewis Milestone with a script by Robert Rossen, Edge of Darkness is a very powerful film about a simple man’s determination to free his country from the grip of totalitarianism. Flynn portrays Gunnar Brogge, a Norwegian resistance leader in the small fishing village of Trollness. He’s determined to get weapons from the British and to use them to strike against the Nazis occupying his town.

   Brogge’s commitment to methodical planning is tested when he discovers that a Nazi soldier violated his girlfriend, Karen Stensgard (Ann Sheridan). Further straining the already tense situation is the fact that Karen’s brother collaborated with the Nazis in Oslo and that her father, Dr. Martin Stensgard (Huston) is not fully committed to violent action against the German invaders.

   There are some very tense moments in this well-acted film, including a scene in which Brogge, along with others, is forced to dig his own grave — literally. The most memorable scene in the film, however, may belong to actor Morris Carnovksy, a veteran of the Yiddish theater and Broadway. Carnovsky, portrays Sixtus Andresen, a town schoolteacher who refuses to yield to the demands of the top Nazi thug in Trollness, Captain Koenig (Dantine). It’s a poignant reminder than individuals do have a choice when faced with tyranny.

« Previous PageNext Page »