October 2013


BARBARA DEMING – Running Away from Myself. Grossman, hardcover, 1969.

BARNARA SEMING Runnina Awaw from Myself

    Okay, stop the presses. Go out and find a copy of Barbara Deming’s 1969 book Running Away from Myself: A dream portrait of America drawn from the Films of the 40’s. I read it forty-some years ago, and it completely changed the way I looked at movies. I just re-read it, and I think it may do the same for you..

    Deming was a writer who deserves to be better known, and her criticism was far, far ahead of its time. (She actually wrote this book back in 1950 and had to wait 20 years to find a publisher.) Running takes a look at the typical films of the 1940s and finds a darker side to them than one would expect from Mass Entertainment — and not just in the films noir.

    Why? she asks, do comedies and romances keep throwing complications at the characters? Why do the “success” stories feature heroines who find achievement meaningless? Why are the heroes in Musicals always misunderstood?

    The answers are there, and Running puts them across in a style that keeps pulling the reader deeper into a unique vision of the Movies: Deming draws parallels between the prototypes of 40’s films that seem surprising and just right at once:

    She looks at Rick in Casablanca and Gregory Peck in Spellbound and sees them both groping for the truth about themselves; Ingrid Bergman in Spellbound and Greer Garson in Random Harvest are painted as Hollywood Ariadnes, bringing their heroes back home; Fred MacMurray in Double Indemnity and George Gershwin in Rhapsody in Blue (and even Eddie Bracken in Hail the Conquering Hero) experience the nightmare of getting everything they want; and her thoughts on movie PI’s like Philip Marlowe and Sam Spade deserve a book all on their own.

    Barbara Deming not only understood how films work — F’rinstance: Double Indemnity is narrated by the Fred MacMurray character. So when he’s on his way to kill Barbara Stanwyck and we see her tuck her own gun close by, it’s effectively likely he saw it and walked in anyway. — but she also had the unique gift of explaining them in clear, seductive prose that carries the reader along with it.

    This ain’t no abstruse assemblage of academic obfuscation, it’s a fast, enjoyable and thoughtful read that surprises one with the ease of its brilliance. Running works out correlations between Casablanca‘s Rick and Donald Duck, or between The Treasure of the Sierra Madre and the Three Stooges, so easily they seem perfectly obvious. Read this, if only to see her connect a dark, smoky Woolrich film called The Chase (1946) with It’s a Wonderful Life to see what I mean.

    And like I say, she wrote this in 1950. So where else can you read about Double Indemnity, Murder My Sweet, Maltese Falcon and The Strange Love of Martha Ivers and never see the word noir?



PEEPING TOM. Anglo-Amalgamated Films, UK, 1960. Carl Boehm, Moira Shearer, Anna Massey, Maxine Audley, Brenda Bruce. Director: Michael Powell.

   Tom is a young photographer (English, but played incongruously by German actor Carl Boehm) who photographs the death-scenes of young women who imagine that he is giving them screen-tests. Boehm’s flat performance is chilling, and I find this film as disquieting as Hitchcock’s Psycho.

   The camera eye seduces the victims and the audience, and there is an extended, bravura sequence in a film studio that portrays the protagonist’s heightened sexual excitement so graphically that many viewers may find it intensely disturbing.

   The film was a box-office failure when it was first released (at a time when audiences preferred the Hammer films’ tamer eroticism) and virtually put an end to Powell’s film career. The director of such distinguished films as Black Narcissus, The Red Shoes, and The Tales of Hoffman photographs this in bright, glossy color that make the scenes of violence all the more disturbing.

   You may find this film disgusting, but I don’t think you will be insensitive to its power.

— From The MYSTERY FANcier, Vol. 6, No. 3, May-June 1982.


A RAGE IN HARLEM. 1991. Robin Givens, Gregory Hines, Forest Whitaker, Danny Glover. Based on the novel For Love of Imabelle by Chester Himes. Original music: Elmer Bernstein. Director: Bill Duke.

   Not too many movies are based on paperback originals, but this is one, and it’s a Gold Medal paperback original to boot. Unfortunately, it’s not a book I’ve ever read, so I can’t tell you whether Himes’ series characters, a pair of ruthless Harlem cops named Grave Digger Jones and Coffin Ed Johnson, have as small a role in the novel as they do in the movie, but in the movie, if you weren’t listening for the names, you’d never even know they were in it.

   The main focus, not too surprisingly, is Robin Givens as Imabelle, a luscious gangster’s moll who flees Natchez, Mississippi, to Harlem with a trunk full of gold, circa 1956, with the gangster’s gang following close on her heels.


   Giving her shelter in his room overnight is a shy, pudgy undertaker’s assistant named Jackson (Forest Whitaker), and nature soon takes its course from there. Jackson’s half-brother Goldy, the black sheep of the family, flamboyantly played by Gregory Hines, is a Harlem-based grifter whose ears perk up when he senses there may be a fortune in gold in the neighborhood.

   A period piece, beautifully filmed. The cinematography may be even better than the plot, which itself is better than average. (Well, even if they changed things around from the way they appeared in the book, as is probably the case, consider the source.)

   There’s enough action – cars and guns – to satisfy the portion of the crowd for whom the plot is hardly essential, and an absolute highlight, besides watching Jackson and Imabelle and nature taking its course, is a knock-out performance at the Undertakers’ Ball of “I Put a Spell on You” by none other than Screamin’ Jay Hawkins (played to perfection by himself). Absolutely decadent.

— September 2004

A 1001 MIDNIGHTS Review
by Bill Pronzini

JOHN HOLBROOK VANCE – The Fox Valley Murders. Bobbs-Merrill, hardcover, 1966. Ace, paperback, no date [1972].


   John Holbrook Vance is one of a handful of writers who have won major awards in two different genres. In the science-fiction field, where he writes as Jack Vance, received a Hugo for his 1963 novel The Dragon Masters — and in the mystery field, he received a Best First Novel Edgar for his 1960 tale of intrigue in Tangier, The Man in the Cage.

   Vance has published a dozen mysteries, most of the formal variety. The two best feature Sheriff Joe Bain of the fictional central California county of San Rodrigo; The Fox Valley Murders is the first of these.

   A smallish agricultural county south of San Jose, San Rodrigo is loosely modeled on the one in which Vance spent his childhood. He portrays it with a great deal of feeling and clarity, utilizing a variety of towns and rural settings much as Dennis Lynds, writing as John Crowe, would do a few years later in his “Buena Costa County” series.

   People and places are so strikingly depicted, and county history, social problems, and politics so well integrated into the narrative, that San Rodrigo inhabitants seem utterly real.

   In The Fox Valley Murders, Bain — a wild youth who has settled down to become a very good lawman — has been appointed acting sheriff after the recent death of old Ernest Cucchinello, the incumbent for many years and a man not above a little corruption. The county elections are not far off.


   Bain wants the sheriff’s job permanently, campaigns hard for it, but is facing stiff competition from a well-backed progress-and-reform group. He is also facing a volatile situation centered around Ansley Wyett, a native of the town of Marblestone, who was convicted sixteen years before — despite his protestations of innocence — of the brutal rape/murder of a thirteen-year-old girl. Now out of San Quentin on parole and back home, Wyett has written the same letter to eachof the five men whose testimony sent him to prison, asking: “How do you plan to make this up to me?”

   It isn’t long before the five recipients begin to die one by one in apparent accidents. Is Ausley responsible? And if not, then who is? And why? And, just as important, how? How do you make a man die of a heart attack in front of a witness (Bain himself)? How do you cause a man who has been picking mushrooms all his life to eat a poisonous toadstool? How do yon make someone fall off a ladder and break his neck in full view of his wife, with no one else around?

   Bain is hard-pressed to find the answers before local citizens decide to take the law into their own hands and/or the election sweeps him right out of office.

   Brimming with suspense, evocatively written, ingeniously constructed (with a number of dovetailing subplots and plenty of clues for the armchair detective), this is a first-rate novel that “fills the bill for real entertainment in the true sense of the word” (King Features Syndicate).


   Almost as good is Joe Bain’s second case, The Pleasant Grove Murders (1967), in which the likable and very human sheriff once again faces political problems and a baffling multiple homicide (three brutal hammer murders).

   Notable among Vance’s other mysteries are a pair under pseudonyms, both published in 1957 — Isle of Peril, as by Alan Wade, and Take My Face, as by Peter Held; The Deadly Isles (1969), a tale of murder in Tahiti and the Marquesas; and Bad Ronald (1973), a psychological thriller.

   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.

R.I.P. JOHN HOLBROOK VANCE (1916-2013). Jack Vance died last May at the grand old age of 96. He was far better known for his works of fantasy and science fiction. Personally I have been reading his novels and short stories since I was in my teens, and I hope to for many more years. It is his wonderful, often playful use of words and the English language that I will remember the most.

William F. Deeck

NIGEL MORLAND – The Clue in the Mirror. Farrar & Rinehart, US, hardcover, 1938. First published in the UK by Cassell, hardcover, 1937.

NIGEL MORLAND The Clue in the Mirror

   Why did the world need V. I. Warshawski and her sistren when it had Palmyra Pym? As Deputy Assistant Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, Mrs. Pym — don’t bring up her unfortunate marriage, the only mistake she’s ever made — struggles mightily for law, as she sees it, and disorder, which is generally what she produces.

   To fulfill her tasks, she carries an automatic that she doesn’t know how to use properly and slugs it out toe to toe with the bad guys just like any bobbie. While not old, she’s no youngster: she was born in 1892, and if the date of publication of this novel can be taken as a clue to her age, she must at least be in her early forties.

   In this case, apparently her fifth since her appointment to the police, the recently promoted — one does wonder why, since loyalty seems to be his only virtue — Chief Inspector Shott brings to Mrs. Pym’s attention the picture of a murdered man whose corpse has disappeared. Neglecting all other work, if she has any, Mrs. Pym becomes involved, making herself, as is her wont, unpleasant to all concerned.

   In this thriller, rather than mystery, Mrs. Pym is the central focus. If you can enjoy her badinage and insults, you will enjoy the novel. It was good fun for the most part, I thought, but in 312 pages the lady can become a bit trying. I’ll read another of her investigations in novel form, but I suspect that the short-story collections featuring her might be more appealing.

— From The MYSTERY FANcier, Vol. 12, No. 2, Spring 1990.

          The Mrs. Palmyra Pym series —

The Moon Murders (n.) Cassell 1935.
The Phantom Gunman (n.) Cassell 1935.
The Clue of the Bricklayer’s Aunt (n.) Cassell 1936.
The Street of the Leopard (n.) Cassell 1936.
The Clue in the Mirror (n.) Cassell 1937.
The Case Without a Clue (n.) Cassell 1938.
A Rope for the Hanging (n.) Cassell 1938.
A Knife for the Killer (n.) Cassell 1939.
The Clue of the Careless Hangman (n.) Cassell 1940.
A Gun for a God (n.) Cassell 1940.
The Corpse on the Flying Trapeze (n.) Cassell 1941.
A Coffin for the Body (n.) Cassell 1943.]
Mrs. Pym of Scotland Yard (co) Vallancey 1946.
The Talking Gun (n.) Polybooks 1946.
The Case of the Innocent Wife (co) Martin 1947.
Dressed to Kill (n.) Cassell 1947.
The Hatchet Murders (n.) Martin 1947.
26 Three-Minute Thrillers (co) Martin 1947.
The Lady Had a Gun (n.) Cassell 1951.
Call Him Early for the Murder (n.) Cassell 1952.
Sing a Song of Cyanide (n.) Cassell 1953.
Look in Any Doorway (n.) Cassell 1957.
A Bullet for Midas (n.) Cassell 1958.
Death and the Golden Boy (n.) Cassell 1958.
The Concrete Maze (n.) Cassell 1960.
So Quiet a Death (n.) Cassell 1960.
The Dear, Dead Girls (n.) Cassell 1961.
Mrs. Pym and other stories (co) Ellis 1976.

Editorial Comment: This is but a fraction of the huge output of crime fiction by author Nigel Morland, who also wrote as Mary Dane, John Donavan, Norman Forrest, Roger Garnett, Hugh Kimberley, Vincent McCall, Neal Shepherd & Nigel Van Biene (the latter of which may have been his real name).


MELVIN L. SEVERY – The Mystery of June 13th. Dodd Mead, hardcover, 1905.

MELVIN L. SEVERY The Mystery of June 13th

   The fateful date occurs more than once over more than a quarter century, in a saga involving Maoris on a mission of vengeance, an eloping couple whose ship passes that captained by the scorned fiance, the naive and about to be swindled inventor of a method of wireless telephony somewhat reminiscent of cell phones, a villainous businessman who out-Jaspers Sir Jasper, an actress taking the town by storm, assorted love affairs, and a number of other matters, all wrapped in a densely woven plot featuring among other things a cypher solved in a scientific manner, impossible locked room type disappearances, the struggle of rival groups of stockholders to gain control of a company following an event the author calls a “cool display of commercial depravity,” and more than one twist along the way.

   George Maitland is called in to investigate a series of threatening letters, communications bearing the same device as that on the blade of the dagger used to murder the recipient’s father 25 years before, as well as on the hand of the assailant of a major character, and seen in various other places. And so murderous doings are set afoot and even Maptland admits “the method employed [for a murder] was unparalleled, fantastic, outre and bizarre in the extreme.”

   I found this novel difficult to get into because of the lengthy opening sequence in a Maori village describing events that set the plot in motion. It might, I venture to suggest, have worked better if shortened and presented as a prologue, but don’t skip it! The story may unfold too slowly for some readers, but patience is advised as once into the thick of the plot, it rattles along like all get out.

   I liked the idea of recurring fateful events on June 13th, and the explanations of how various matters were accomplished are fascinating. Some readers will guess the who and why since they are privy to information Maitland has not, but the how is what will almost certainly puzzle to the end, so it’s worth persisting with the novel even if you read a rather spotty copy on archive.org as I did!

Editorial Comment:   This review is a follow-up to one written by Mary of The Darrow Enigma, also by Melvin L. Severy. You will find it here.


THE WOMAN EATER. Eros Films, UK, 1958; Columbia Pictures, US, 1959. George Coulouris, Vera Day, Peter Wayn, Joyce Gregg, Joy Webster, Jimmy Vaughn. Director: Charles Saunders.


   The Woman Eater is the risible title of a remarkable little film which no doubt inspired (if inspiration had anything to do with it) the better-known Little Shop of Horrors (1960).

   George Coulouris, best remembered as young Charles’ guardian in Citizen Kane, here plays an intrepid explorer/scientist, and tries hard not to look embarrassed as he journeys deep into the Amazon Jungle where he sees a lot of stock footage and Marpessa Dawn (who would go on to Black Orpheus) being sacrificed to a giant thing that looks like a cross between a hairy Muppet and Mr. Tree — truly one of the most unintentionally amusing monsters of the 50s, and one you should not miss.

   Five years later (a title tells us) he’s back in England with the plant and a cringing native catamite/assistant called Tanga, convinced that the tree secretes a sap that will revive the dead. Of course to get the sap he has to sacrifice young women to the damn thing, so it seems like a zero-sum game to me, but hey, he’s a scientist I’m sure he must think he knows what he’s doing.

   At one point he tests things out by injecting the sap into what looks like a giant chicken heart, which makes one question his priorities, but it doesn’t work and that’s the last we see of the giant chicken heart, which is rather a shame because I thought it was a good part, even if we never learn exactly what it was, where it came from or why. Obviously a film to challenge us with existential questions about the meaning of it all.

   Anyway, the story gets a little strange at this point, as George’s housekeeper says she’s madly in love with him (with George Coulouris???) the young heroine recently employed by George insists there’s something evil in the house (even though they forgot to shoot any scenes of her hearing strange noises or such) and George announces he’s madly in love with the heroine, whom he met the day before. We get the usual climactic conflagration, and all ends, if not well, at least promptly in a film worthy to stand beside classics like Jungle Captive and The Spider Woman Strikes Back.

   As Walt Kelly used to say: it’s enough to make a man think.


by Francis M. Nevins

CRAIG RICE 8 Faces at 3

   The latest golden oldie I decided to revisit in my golden years is 8 FACES AT 3 (Simon & Schuster, 1939), which I first read in the summer of 1964, just before I entered law school. Craig Rice (1908-1957), one of the most popular female mystery writers of her generation, entered the genre with this novel, along with alcoholic criminal defense lawyer John J. Malone, drink-sodden talent agent Jake Justus, and ever-inebriated heiress Helene Brand, who would become Mrs. Jake in future outings.

   Amid copious shots of booze the trio probe the stabbing death of vicious old Chicago dowager Alexandria Inglehart, whose murderer also made all the beds in the Inglehart mansion and (dare I say it?) took the time to stop all the clocks in the house at 3:00. The plot is marred by logical holes and legal howlers — sorry, Ms. Rice, but no court would enforce a will provision nullifying an outright bequest if the recipient marries after the testator’s death — and the solution is surprising but only mildly fair and a bit hard to swallow.

   What I found most striking about this novel is the interweaving of some all but noirish sequences with scads of drunken escapades. Rice seems to think that hoisting a few while driving along Chicago streets that have turned to sheets of ice is the height of hilarity, although when held up against the later exploits of Malone and his buddies this one is a model of rationality and sobriety. The critics who have likened Rice’s world to Hollywood’s screwball comedies of the Thirties knew what they were talking about.


   How do I know precisely when 8 FACES first came into my ken? Because, rummaging in my file cabinets between sessions with Rice’s madcap protagonists, I discovered an old notebook containing comments on the mysteries I had read back in the Sixties and Seventies. Dozens of these clumsily written paragraphs became the rough sketches for material that wound up in various essays of mine, like the ones on Cleve F. Adams, William Ard and Milton Propper; many others have been seen by no eyes but my own.

Cyril Delavanti

   Among the subjects of the latter is Clyde B. Clason (1903-1987), who wrote ten well-regarded classic puzzle novels in the 1930s and early Forties before giving up the genre permanently. Protagonist of all ten is Professor Theocritus Lucius Westborough, a little old man whose day job is teaching classical languages and literature but whose true forte is solving bizarre murders.

   Anyone remember an actor named Cyril Delevanti? He was a dried-up old prune who, usually uncredited, played clones of himself in dozens of movies, including Chaplin’s Monsieur Verdoux and Limelight and John Huston’s Night of the Iguana, and a hundred or more episodes of TV series like Gunsmoke, Perry Mason, Have Gun Will Travel, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Ben Casey and The Twilight Zone.

   For me Delevanti is the living image of just about every little-old-man detective character, including Henry the Waiter in Isaac Asimov’s Black Widowers stories and, of course, Clason’s Professor Westborough. In my mind’s ear I can almost hear Delevanti murmuring “Dear me” as Westborough does times without number.

Cyril Delavanti

   Of Clason’s ten novels I’ve only read three, the earliest being THE DEATH ANGEL (1936). On a visit to a friend’s estate in southern Wisconsin while local farmers are staging a violent milk strike, Westborough is deputized by the sheriff after his host first receives a threatening note signed “The Firefly” and then vanishes.

   The professor investigates the series of attempted murders that follow and encounters two clever ways of setting up a perfect alibi and perhaps a bit too much information about archery, mushrooms and the theory of electricity. Clason‘s characters tend to evade, drawl, growl, grunt, explode, supply, venture, persist, ejaculate and flare, but most of his said substitutes aren’t too outrageous and his plot convolutions are spectacular.

   The later Westborough novels tend to revolve around ancient or exotic settings. MURDER GONE MINOAN (1939) takes place on a private island off the California coast, owned by a Greek-American department-store tycoon with a phobia about the imminence of another Depression and a passion for the millennia-old Cretan civilization. When a priceless Minoan religious image disappears from the tycoon’s Knossos-like palace, Westborough is asked to investigate and encounters a mess of amorous intrigues and two murders apparently committed by a devotee of the ancient Cretan snake goddess.

Cyril Delavanti

   The parts of the story told in transcript and document form are neatly handled, but the mind boggles at the amount of physical action this frail 70-year-old academic takes part in, and the solution he comes up with is hopelessly unfair (except to readers who can tell whether a particular classical quotation comes from the Iliad or the Odyssey). The said substitutes, plus a small army of exclamation points, are piled on with a vengeance.

   In GREEN SHIVER (1941), Clason’s tenth and last detective novel, the place and time are southern California in early 1940. As in MURDER GONE MINOAN, the first crime is the theft of an exotic religious image, this time a jade Taoist goddess which vanished from the Oriental palace of an oil widow during a public exhibition of her treasures to benefit Chinese war refugees.

   Westborough, who is suddenly gifted with expert knowledge of ancient China as well as Greece and Rome, is offstage far more than in earlier Clasons but quickly gets involved in a bizarre double murder with occult overtones. The clumsy plot depends on an unplanned perfect alibi, but the Sino-Japanese war background is well evoked and Clason’s knowledge and love of Chinese philosophy and culture enliven every page.


   Have I been a little unfair to Clason? According to a slew of experts — Robert Adey, Jon Breen, Bob Briney and Randy Cox, just to name a few from the early letters of the alphabet — by far the finest of his ten novels is THE MAN FROM TIBET (1938), which I’ve never read. If I ever come across a copy, I’ll be sure to write it up in this column.


CLASON Murder Gone Minoan

In Clason’s MURDER GONE MINOAN, Westborough satisfies himself that a man claiming to be a fellow classics professor is an impostor by quoting a verse apiece from the Iliad and the Odyssey and not being corrected when he attributes each verse to the wrong epic poem. Somehow this incident brought back memories of other mysteries where the detective character used his specialized knowledge in the same general way.

   Perhaps the best known is found in “The Blue Cross,” the earliest exploit of G.K. Chesterton’s most famous character. At the climax Father Brown explains to the thief Flambeau, who is impersonating a priest, how from their dialogue he knew the other was a fake. “You attacked reason. It’s bad theology.”

   One of my favorite scenes of this sort — largely because it doesn’t require reader familiarity with specialized subjects like Greek poetry or Catholic theology — occurs in Rex Stout’s 1946 novelet “Before I Die.”

   Nero Wolfe is having dinner with a young man who claims to be a third-year law student. “I hope…that you are prepared to face the fact that very few people like lawyers,” Wolfe says. “I don’t. They are inveterate hedgers. They think everything has two sides, which is nonsense. They are insufferable word-stretchers. I had a lawyer draw up a tort for me once, a simple conveyance, and he made it eleven pages. Two would have done it. Have they taught you to draft torts?”

   â€œ…Naturally, sir, that’s in the course,” the young man replies. “I try not to put in more words than necessary.” That, as Wolfe explains at the denouement, was the tipoff. “A tort is an act, not a document, as any law student would know. You can’t draft a tort any more than you can draft a burglary.” “Before I Die” is one of the clumsiest of all the shorter Wolfe exploits but that single moment keeps it green in my memory.

Editorial Notes:   My review of Murder Gone Minoan can be found here. Curt Evans’ review of 8 Faces at 3 can be found here.

Reviewed by DAVID L. VINEYARD:         


DIPLOMATIC COURIER. Fox, 1952. Tyrone Power, Patricia Neal, Stephen McNally, Hildegarde Neff, Karl Malden, James Millican, Stefan Schnabel, with Carleton Young, Dabs Greer, Russ Conway, Lumsden Hare, Charles Bronson, Lee Marvin, Michael Ansara. Narrated by Hugh Marlowe. Screenplay by Casey Robinson & Liam O’Brien, based on the novel Sinister Errand by Peter Cheyney. Directed by Henry Hathaway.

   One of the best spy films of the Fifties, this fast paced thriller directed by Henry Hathaway was shot extensively on location across Europe and races from Paris to Salzberg to the international city of Trieste (“What Lisbon and Istanbul were to the last war Trieste is to this one”), and a finale on the Simplon Orient Express.

   Tyrone Power is Mike Kells, a diplomatic courier tapped for a dangerous assignment almost before he can finish the one he is already on (a voice over by narrator Hugh Marlowe informs us the mission has been triggered by the most important message to be received by the State Department since the 38th Parallel was crossed in Korea — the Semper Project). He’s to board the Arlsberg Express out of Salzberg and meet fellow courier Sam Carew (James Millican) who will give him papers to deliver to Trieste.

   Nothing all that surprising save that they hand him a gun before he boards the plane.

   Normally he’s armed with a briefcase chained to his waist and in no more danger than flirting with attractive flight attendants and trying to fasten his seatbelt while chained to a briefcase.

   On the plane with him he meets attractive widow Joan Ross (Patricia Neal) whose shoulder he promptly falls asleep on. She immediately sets her elegant cap for him, but he keeps disappearing on her.


   Could be a pleasant assignment after all, and it will be nice to see good old Sam again..

   But Sam is being followed and meeting with a mysterious blonde (Hildegarde Neff), and in short order is murdered by a pair of Russian thugs. Mike leaves the train to stay with the body, and Colonel Cagle (Stephen McNally) of military intelligence sets him out as a stalking horse with only military policeman Ernie (Karl Malden) to protect him.

   Now Kells is racing across Europe with spies on his trail, involved with beautiful stateless Janine (Hildegarde Neff), and wondering why Joan Ross keeps showing up.

   It all has to do with the papers Sam was supposed to give him — copies of the Soviet plan to invade and take over Yugoslavia.


   Ernie and Cagle are the only people Mike can trust, and they are using him as a staked goat in a high stakes hunt. Someone murdered his friend, and now they are trying to kill him.

   In Trieste the stakes grow much higher, until the final confrontation with the head of Soviet intelligence in the West (Stefan Schnabel) in a compartment on the Orient Express with Soviet Agents on all sides.

   Henry Hathaway was one of film’s great entertainers, his films including everything from rousing adventures of the Raj like Lives of the Bengal Lancers; film noir like Kiss of Death, Dark Corner, and Call Northside 777; westerns like True Grit, Rawhide, and Garden of Evil; rollicking comedy/adventure like North to Alaska, suspense like 23 Paces to Baker Street and Seven Thieves; and docu-noir like The House on 92nd Street.


   Power did several good films with Hathaway from Johnny Apollo to Brigham Young and the classic noir western Rawhide. You can watch the arc of his career across the Hathaway films alone, and see in this one the mature actor with WW II military experience behind him as well as critical success on stage in Mister Roberts. Here he is self assured, sensibly paranoid, and suitably tough, a fair distance from the male ingenue of Johnny Apollo.

   It’s an assured star performance by an actor at the top of his game.

   This is a fast paced hard nosed spy drama that keeps much of the plot of Peter Cheyney’s novel (first of two featuring Mike Kells, the other is Ladies Won’t Wait) changing the hero from British to American (ironic considering it’s Peter Cheyney famous for using the faux American voice), Cheyney’s ruthless spy boss Peter Quayle to Stephen McNally’s Colonel Cagle, and Cheyney’s cheerful Belgian hit man Ernie Guelvada into Karl Malden’s military policeman Ernie (actually it’s perfect casting either way).

   Cheyney’s penchant for elegant deadly ladies is kept intact. Both Neal and Neff are sexy and suitably dangerous, and it is relatively late in the film before you know which side, besides their own, either is on.

   Both Neal and Neff have strong scenes and handle them well. Neal in particular walks a thin line between comedy and drama and has a great last line.


   Diplomatic Courier has the advantage of a big budget, a first rate supporting cast, a strong script and storyline, beautiful cinematography by Lucien Ballard, taut direction by Hathaway, and attractive leads at the top of their form. It’s not particularly serious, but it is rapidly paced, handsomely shot, and the kind of sure fire entertainment that the big studios did with casual brilliance.

   Look quickly for Dabs Greer, Lee Marvin, Charles Bronson, and Michael Ansara all unbilled in the credits. Greer has no lines and Bronson’s only line is in Russian.

   I think you will be impressed by this one. It’s an exciting slick spy film that is smart and entertaining, and hardly takes a pause for breath from the opening to the finale. You’ll be almost as breathless as Power’s Mike Kells by the time you get to the end. It may not be quite in a class with films like The Third Man, Five Fingers, or North By Northwest, but it is top notch entertainment all the way.


« Previous Page