Reviewed by DAVID VINEYARD:          

MIDNIGHT. Universal Pictures, 1934. Re-released as Call It Murder. Humphrey Bogart, Sidney Fox, O. P. Heggie, Henry Hull, Margaret Whycherly, Lynne Overman (as Lynn Overman), Richard Whorf, Helen Flint, Henry O’Neill, Moffatt Johnston (as Moffatt Johnson). Screenplay by Paul and Claire Sifton based on their play. Director: Chester Erskine (as Chester Erskin (also uncredited on the screenplay).

   Copies of this film available today credit Humphrey Bogart as the star, but that seems to have been unlikely in the 1934 release. Had he been top billed in this one, his career would likely have taken more than a mere six more years to take off. This film isn’t kind to anyone. I suspect it is no accident three people spelled their names differently than normal in the credits. I wouldn’t want this dog on my resume either.

   Most annoying of all the many things annoying about this film is the arty way it is shot, with too much use of the subjective camera, long speeches by actors looking directly into the camera, and tricky shots that only serve to emphasize just how silly and overdone the plot really is. The handful that do work even halfway just remind you how bad the rest of the film is.

   O. P. Heggie plays self righteous Edward Wheldon, who, as foreman of the jury in the trial of Ethel Saxton (Helen Flint), persuades the jury to convict her of first degree murder. Come the night of the execution, he is scheduled to listen to a live special broadcast of the event on his home radio and crowds have gathered outside his front door, so the tension is starting to wear on him and his absolute certainty of the law and everything else.

   Meanwhile his children Stella (Sidney Fox) and Arthur (Richard Whorf) feel the pressure and have no desire to stay home and listen as a woman, whose condemnation to death is dubious at best, dies. Nolan (Henry Hull) is a reporter who wants an exclusive inside the home during the broadcast, who uses brother in law Joe Biggers (Lynne Overman) as his ticket inside, and who twists the knife once in.

   Tension or not, when Saxton’s lawyer (Henry O’Neill) shows up hoping to get something out of Wheldon that could lead to a stay, he only gets another self-righteous letter of the law speech.

   Humphrey Bogart is Gar, a young man who Stella met at the trial the day Ethel Saxton was convicted. Gar is a dubious character attracted to Ethel who knows he is no good for her or her for him and is leaving for Chicago the night of the execution to work as a collector for the mob, but he plans to see Stella one more time after making a last local collection. Let’s just say he is exactly the type you would expect to be named Gar.

   As the execution nears. Wheldon breaks under the pressure, and only after a self-serving speech about upholding the letter of the law he makes to the public on his doorstep, does he find out that at the moment of the execution Stella was down the street in Gar’s flashy sports car and shot him.

   Exit Humphrey Bogart a bit over forty six minutes into an 87 minute film without so much as a death scene.

   Nolan finds the body, puts two and two together, and calls in District Attorney Plunkett (Moffatt Johnston). At this point things become murky, because it is never really clear whether the DA actually thinks Stella didn’t shoot Bogart and confessed only because of pressure over the execution or is trying to prevent another miscarriage of justice by letting her off.

   Like almost everything else about this film, the murk is unrelieved by the over-acting and the peculiar way the film is shot. If the DA is letting off the self-righteous Wheldon and his hysterical daughter — who freaked out so much she shot a man who was not harming her in any way — the decision is just bizarre. In either case the explanation he gives for his decision is pure gibberish, even by the lax standards of melodrama, and the cheapest kind of pop psychology.

   I suppose there is some attempt to make this seem more like a stage play with the actors all walking center front to make their speeches, and some may be impressed with the camera work and the attempts to provide some style to the proceedings, but for me it just makes the film ponderous, artificial, and melodramatic in the worst way.

   It doesn’t help that Hull and Overman are the only two actors the bit least comfortable on screen — you get the feeling Bogart knew this wasn’t going to do his career any favors and he seems properly chagrined to be in it — or that Moffatt Johnston — who plays sleuth and gets to dominate most of the final fifteen minutes of the film — has a heavy accent and all the screen charisma of a rock as he delivers the nonsensical explanation of the crime and its solution.

   I will give minimal credit to one shot of a policeman standing guard in front of Wheldon’s house as the camera moves close in on his badge, only to pull back, revealing the policeman standing guard in front of Ethel Saxton’s cell as she breaks down, though it falls into the even a broken clock is right twice a day category. That, and the execution itself are well handled.

   This film wasn’t released into the public domain; more likely no one wanted to claim it. It is more like something unpleasant that won’t die because Humphrey Bogart is in it.

   There is one touch of irony. At film’s end Hull steps outside in the dark, puts on his fedora, and lights a cigarette briefly illuminating his face. It is the kind of scene that will become iconic of Bogart for much of his career, but even silent films can’t be saved by a couple of interesting camera set ups, and this one is not. Not even a film student or an academic trying to make a career in film criticism by finding a gem among the dreck could make anything but a wreck out of this.

Reviewed by JONATHAN LEWIS:         

TERROR BENEATH THE SEA. Toei Company, Japan, 1966. Original title: Kaitei daisensô. Sonny Chiba, Peggy Neal, Frank Gruber, Steve Queens, Andre Husse. Director: Hajime Satô.

   Terror Beneath the Sea might not be a good movie per se, but it’s sure as heck an enjoyable one to watch. Directed by Hajime Sato, this alternatingly hip and schlocky 1960s movie features Sonny Chiba in an early screen role.

   Chiba portrays a reporter who, along with his female colleague (Peggy Neal) happens upon a mad scientist’s plan to create a master race of aquatic cyborg men! There are not a lot of martial arts on display, but there are some bizarre creatures with spear guns. That’s got to count for something.

   Comparable in visual style to both Edgar Ulmer’s Beyond the Time Barrier (1960) that I reviewed here, and Mario Bava’s Planet of the Vampires (1965), Sato’s movie works better as spectacle than as a story. Indeed, the plot doesn’t have all that much depth. But that’s easily forgotten when one sits back and appreciates the director’s skillful use of colors, lighting, and an electronic, jazzy score to heighten the atmospheric mood of a monster movie that isn’t so much frightening as it is entertaining.

KILLSHOT. Weinstein Co., 2008. Mickey Rourke, Thomas Jane, Diane Lane, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Rosario Dawson. Based on the novel by Elmore Leonard. Director: John Madden.

   I won’t go into the problems this movie had in being made. If you’re interested, you can read about them on the Internet. I will point out that the movie was “finished” in January 2006, according to IMDb, but not released until 2008, and then it was essentially Direct-to-DVD, with only a tiny theatrical opening as a trial run, which must have flopped.

   I also won’t (or can’t) compare it to Elmore Leonard’s novel, because, well, I haven’t read it. I think he’s a good writer, but his plots — mostly about hinky things going wrong when lowlife criminals think they’re masterminds — generally don’t interest me, and the characters, including innocent bystanders (more or less) who get caught up in the plots, even less. Usually. There are exceptions.

   As far as I’ve been able to tell, this movie follows the book all the way through. Except for maybe the ending. I haven’t read any reviews of the book that describe the ending, which in the movie is rather lame, as happy endings in crime films usually are.

   Mickey Rourke plays the main character, a stoic but quite competent hit man for hire named Armand Degas, nicknamed ‘Blackbird’ because of his Native American background and heritage. What makes him a success at what he does is that he always makes sure there are no witnesses. In Killshot, though, he hooks up with a psychopathic looney named Richie Nix (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) who is totally off-the-wall and prone to both braggadocio and catastrophic error in close to equal proportion.

   In any case, here they mess up on one of their ventures and are seen by a married couple (Diane Lane and Thomas Jane), who, even though they are on the verge of divorcing, are forced to go into a witness protection as a married couple.

   There is a lot of plot involved in this movie, and even so, it leaves out the part about the federal marshal who stalks Mrs Colson once they’re ensconced in their new town and identities. Maybe this little sidebar could have been worked in. The movie is only 90 minutes long, plus or minus two or three. I think it flows fairly nicely, though, but with a story such as this, you really would think (as I think back about it) that there’d be a lot more suspense in it than there is.

   One surprise comes before the end, however, and I obviously can’t tell you about it, but one does wonder why the particular event I’m talking about took as long to happen as it did.

   I think it’s better than the ending, too, but following the rule that all reviewers must follow, I can’t tell you about that, either. See the little bit about it I said above, however.


LOREN ESTLEMAN – King of the Corner. Detroit trilogy #3, Bantam, hardcover, 1992; paperback, 1993.

   Loren Estleman doesn’t know how to write a bad book. Westerns, PI’s, hit men, whatever, I’ve enjoyed everything he’s written. His latest project has been a series of three books that attempt to capture the essence [and] trace the life of the city of Detroit from the gangster era (Whiskey River) through the heyday of automotive industry (Motown) to the present day and book.

   The story is told through the eyes of Kevin “Doc” Miller, a one-time star relief pitcher for the Detroit Tigers who has just been paroled after serving seven years in prison for hosting a party at which drugs were used and a teenaged girl died. He moves in temporarily with his brother and soon gets a job with the city’s leading bailbondsman, more or less by happenstance.

   Through his work with the bondsman, Doc meets various members of the city’s black power structure, both legal and illegal. The city’s real-life mayor, Coleman Young, is portrayed interestingly and, if television and newspapers are to be believed, at least semi-accurately. Against Miller’s will he becomes involved in situations which could result in his return to prison, or worse.

   But Detroit is the real story, and as in the first two books, Estleman brings it alive. It has long been apparent in his Amos Walker books that he has both deep feeling for and knowledge of the troubled city, and in this trilogy he has used it all. The three in sum paint a vivid picture of a fascinating part of American urban history.

   Don’t misunderstand me; this isn’t undying literature, nor were the first two. All three are, however, prime examples of what Estleman does as well as anyone writing, and that is telling an interesting and entertaining story.

   I’l1 admit it: I’m glad to see him finish the trilogy, because I’m ready for another Amos Walker. I’m glad he wrote them, though, and would recommend them to anyone who enjoys good fiction.

– Reprinted from Fireman, Fireman, Save My Books #3, September 1992.

Reviewed by DAVID VINEYARD:          

JOHN LE CARRÉ – Absolute Friends. Hodder, UK, hardcover, 2003. Little Brown, US, hardcover, 2004. Back Bay Books, US, softcover, 2004.

   Those of you who follow the comments section here know I have a love/hate relationship with John Le Carré’s work. I find it amusing that a relatively low level diplomatic operative who ran a Post Office drop in Germany in the Cold War, and who makes up ninety percent of his tradecraft and jargon, is considered to be an authority on intelligence work, and whose knee jerk anti-Americanism is a tired rehash of sixties leftish British politics the rest of the world long outgrew, is praised by so many critics who fail to note that his dialogue is often painfully stilted, his prose heavy, and his turn of phrase almost never gracious or smooth.

   I sometimes liken him to Mark Twain’s criticism of James Fenimore Cooper, in that I’m not sure the critics actually praising his work read it or much care for thriller fiction. They seem to feel the more difficult he is to read the more gifted he must be. As a stylist he is closer to Cooper or Dennis Wheatley than Graham Greene or Ian Fleming, but lacking their flair for melodrama.

   Despite all that, at his best Le Carré can be a compelling and intelligent writer. Call For the Dead, The Spy Who Came In From the Cold, The Looking Glass War, A Small Town in Germany, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, The Honorable Schoolboy, Smiley’s People, The Little Drummer Girl, The Night Manager, Our Game, and The Constant Gardner are all books that I enjoyed and admired.

   For every bad book like A Most Wanted Man, where he shows his considerable limitations politically as a pundit and as a writer with a thoroughly disproven thesis and poor handling of a non-Brit protagonist, he wrote something like The Perfect Spy (his best novel if not spy novel) or this book, Absolute Friends.

   It probably helps that Absolute Friends is a young man’s book despite Le Carré’s age; angry and passionate in its politics and point of view. It follows three unlucky people from the sixties to the run up to the post 9/11 invasion of Iraq; Ted Mundy, a radical Brit academic, Sasha, a leftish friend of his youth, and Zara, a young Turkish single mother who is now Mundy’s partner and lover.

   The book deals with how two young leftist activists in sixties Germany become caught up in intelligence working for the British, and how they are brutally used by American and British intelligence as well as the Bush and Blair governments eventually as part of the conspiracy to justify the Iraq war. That the big payoff comes across as rather silly as terrorist plots go is a weakness, but he handles the characters so well here it matters less than it might. Frankly, most writers on the other end of the political spectrum don’t handle this part much better, and they are trying create serious threats.

   Le Carré has always wanted to be Graham Greene, but has always lacked Greene’s strengths, his wit and humor, his Catholic guilt, or his compassion for all of his creations, even the Americans like Pyle in The Quiet American. The fact that in five decades of writing thrillers Le Carré has never created a single believable American character shows his limitations. He has come close to Greene a few times not including his rewrite of Greene’s Our Man In Havana, The Tailor of Panama, a book I found largely embarrassing, and here he is probably as close to Greeneland as he will ever get. That is a compliment for anyone who cares.

   Like or hate the politics or his great theme here, dismiss his knee jerk anti-American tendencies or loathe them, face that he really never has written women very well (all the women in his books are basically men with breasts when he bothers to write about them at all, either all brilliant and beautiful or troll-like and smart), even dislike his at time difficult prose, this is a young man’s passionate book and better for it.

   Absolute Friends is both a good post Cold War spy novel and a good novel. It is Le Carré at his best, and for once deserving of the praise it receives from critics. If nothing else, the sections in Germany in the sixties are as good as anything he has written since A Small Town in Germany, and that was very good indeed. For once the most over-praised writer in thrillerdom deserves the accolades his work received.

JACK HIGGINS writing as JAMES GRAHAM – The Khufra Run. Berkley, paperback reprint, February 1985. British hardcover edition: Macmillan, 1972. US hardcover edition: Doubleday & Co, 1973. Other paperback editions include: Fawcett Crest, 1976; Pocket Books, 1990; Berkley, 2002.

   Here’s something that’s interesting, and maybe you know this already, but of the two authors’ names on the cover of the 1985 paperback I just read, neither is the author’s real one. “Jack Higgins,” still writing today, was born in 1929 as Harry Patterson, and his first several books were published under that byline.

   Other names he also went under are: Martin Fallon, Hugh Marlowe and Henry Patterson, but over the years most of his work has been reprinted as by Higgins, the name he’s most known by. (I haven’t checking into that statement, but those that haven’t, if any, would therefore have to be the ones he’s least happy with, looking back at them today.

   No matter. It was The Eagle Has Landed, the 1975 thriller about a German attempt to infiltrate England in World War II and capture Winston Churchill, that made Higgins a multi-millionaire. The Khufra Run isn’t in that league, by any means, but it’s hugely entertaining, and if done with a decent B-level budget, it would make a really decent B-grade action movie.

   Here’s the opening paragraph:

   It was late evening when they brought the coffin down to the lower quay in Cartagena’s outer harbour. There were no family mourners as far as I could see, just four men from the undertakers in the hearse, a customs officer in a Land-Rover bringing up the rear.

   Here are the last two paragraphs from Chapter One:

   I paused on the brow of the road close to an old ruined mill, a well-known landmark, and got out to admire the view. I reached for a cigarette and somewhere close at hand, a woman screamed, high-pitched and full of terror.

   A second later, a naked girl ran out of the darkness into the headlights of the jeep.

   It is the girl who is the key figure in the rest of the story, which involves a flight Jack Nelson, who tells the story, intends to make from Cartagena to Ibiza (an island off the Spanish coast), a trip for which he most definitely has an ulterior motive.

   By profession, Nelson is an island-hopping pilot and small time smuggler. The naked girl is Claire Bouvier, or as it happens, Sister Claire, of the Little Sisters of Pity, on leave from a convent near Grenoble. And as it eventually transpires, she has a proposition for Jack.

   Somewhere in the Khufra Marshes off the Algerian coast is a fortune in silver, and Claire, one of the most naive and single-minded women you will ever meet, in fiction or not, needs Jack and his friend Turk to help her find it. On page 20, she tells Jack that “you are a good man in spite of yourself.” Jack is not so sure, nor is the reader, except for the reader who knows exactly how predictable such adventurers (and their adventures) are.

   It’s still a rattling good story, whatever that means, even if Jack is rather careless about the bad guys on their trail, and yes, or course there are, and if I didn’t mention them, you should have known without my telling you. Once they all start making their way through the marshes, a very picturesque narrative suddenly goes into overdrive. If you can put the book down after page 138, you are a better man (or woman) than I.

   The ending is even better. I like the idea of Audrey Hepburn in the role of Claire, while any tall, slim, grizzled tough guy actor could be Jack. But Audrey Hepburn. She may have been a little slim for the part, but other than that, nothing but net.

– January 2005

CRY DANGER. RKO Radio Pictures, 1951. Dick Powell, Rhonda Fleming, Richard Erdman, William Conrad, Regis Toomey, Jean Porter, Joan Banks, Jay Adler. Director: Robert Parrish.

   This was the next to last of the black-and-white crime movies that Dick Powell made, and it’s the last if you don’t count The Tall Target, released later the same year. I wouldn’t call Cry Danger a noir film, unless you define a noir film by style rather than content. It’s a crime film, but with the lighting and semi-sleazy setting of a film noir, with characters to match, but without the sense of inevitable doom that some viewers feel that a true noir requires.

   But why quibble? It’s a crime movie that’s a lot of fun to watch, and if you do, be sure to obtain a copy of print recently restored by the UCLA Film & Television Archive. The picture quality is sharp and clear, showing us once again that the people who made black-and-white movies back before color took over completely knew exactly what they were doing.

   Dick Powell plays Rocky Mulloy, a guy who’s just been released from prison after five years. A witness has surprisingly shown up and given him an alibi for the time of the robbery and murder.

   Not as lucky is his friend Danny Morgan, who’s still in jail for the same crime. Richard Erdman plays Delong, the fellow who supposedly cleared Rocky, but in reality has given himself an opportunity to obtain a share of the missing loot, just as he’d planned.

   While Rocky, who really was innocent, tries to clear his pal still in jail, the two of them hole up in a rundown trailer court in an even more rundown trailer. Danny’s wife (Rhonda Fleming) lives in the same court, as does Darlene (Jean Porter), a blonde bimbo who also has the nimble fingers of a skilled pickpocket. She and Delong get along just fine, sort of, in a serio-humorous kind of way.

   I should also mention Castro, the bookie who Rocky is sure planned the robbery. He’s played in super sleazy fashion by William Conrad, who like Raymond Burr made an early career for himself playing characters just like this.

   The dialogue between Rocky and Delong is sharp and witty, and very nearly worth the price of admission in itself. Add the two ladies to the mix, along with Castro and a cop (Regis Toomey) who doesn’t believe a word of Rocky’s alibi, and you have a story that can easily suck you in without letting go.

   Of the players, I think Rhonda Fleming is the least believable She’s simply too good-looking to be the wife of anyone in a movie like this. As for Dick Powell, he certainly knew what he was doing when he made a such a sharp turnaround in his career, and started making movies like this.

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