November 2014

THE TIME MACHINE. Dreamworks/Warner Brothers, 2002. Guy Pearce, Sienna Guillory, Samantha Mumba, Jeremy Irons, Orlando Jones, Mark Addy, Phyllida Law, Alan Young. Based on the novel by H. G. Wells and the 1960 screenplay by David Duncan. Director: Simon Wells.

   There’s some resemblance between one of H. G. Wells’ most famous stories and this movie, but not a whole lot. I suspect it’s a lot closer to the 1960 film based on a screenplay by David Duncan, the one starring Rod Taylor and produced by George Pal, but it’s been so long that I watched that one that perhaps I should not even bring it up.

   The first part of the movie, the part that takes place in Victorian England, is better by far than what follows, as Alexander Hartdegen (Guy Pearce) travels into the future to find out why he can’t change the past by means of a time machine he has built (a wonderful concoction of revolving rings, clockwork gears and sharply focused beams of light) — a past in which his fiancée dies, and keeps on dying every time to goes back in time to save her, only to fail.

   In the far, far future mankind has evolved into two races: the Eloi, a peaceful lot who live above ground but who seem to have no purpose in their lives, and the Morlocks, a race of ravaging monsters who live below ground and prey on the Eloi at feeding time.

   There are a lot of computer generated effects to make this future come to life. The past is easier to reproduce (ignoring the fact that Hartdegen’s betrothed (Sienna Guillory) uses present day makeup to enhance her already natural beauty). Much is made of Hartdegen’s inability to change the past, but the explanation, when it comes, is tossed off in a line that takes less than five seconds to say.

   It is one of those temporal paradoxes like the one that says you can’t go back and kill your grandfather before you are born because then there would be no you to go back in time to kill your grandfather. But to put a proposition like this before an audience that might want to think about it while would take some effort, and Simon Wells (H. G. Wells great-grandson) takes the easier way out and concentrates on the monsters and the blow darts and the explosions instead, presumably thinking that’s enough to satisfy the reality based science fiction fans among us.

   It isn’t. No more than to imagine that destroying the moon in its orbit in the 21st century would allow for any kind of life to exist on the Earth 800,000 years later, much less speak English.

Reviewed by JONATHAN LEWIS:         

TREASURE OF RUBY HILLS. Allied Artists, 1955. Zachary Scott, Carole Mathews, Barton MacLane, Dick Foran, Lola Albright, Gordon Jones, Raymond Hatton, Lee Van Cleef. Based on the story “The Rider of the Ruby Hills,” by Louis L’Amour. Director: Frank McDonald.

   For a Western with quite a few excellent character actors, Treasure of Ruby Hills is overall something of a disappointment. Based on a Louis L’Amour story, the movie stars Zachary Scott as a man determined not to follow his deceased father down the rabbit hole of frontier criminality.

   Scott, with menacing eyes and a thick mustache, portrays the enigmatic Ross Haney, a man determined to revenge the death of his friend and business partner at the hands of Frank Emmett (the always enjoyable-to-watch Lee Van Cleef). Haney also seems to have a greater scheme in mind. Although it takes a while for the viewer to learn his overall motivations, one soon learns that Haney’s overall objective is to control the water supply to the town of Soledad, so as to exert power over the thuggish cattle barons who rule the town.

   Sounds simple enough.

   Unfortunately, the film tries to do too much. It introduces far too many characters in a running time of just over seventy minutes. There’s the rancher brother and sister combo. No surprise here: Haney falls in love with the sister and ends up the mortal rival of her would-be fiancé, Alan Doran, portrayed by Dick Foran.

   There are also two rival cattle/land barons, Chalk Reynolds (Barton MacLane) and Walt Payne (Charles Fredericks), both of whom end up with a bellyful of lead thanks to Doran’s scheming. Plus, there’s the marshal; Scott’s other would-be business partner; a wounded man whom Haney tends to; an innkeeper; and a waitress. Add to this some backstories about the characters and you end up with an overall muddled story, one that simply refuses to flow smoothly.

   What Treasure of Ruby Hills does have going for it is, however, is atmosphere. The narrative unfolds in a semi-claustrophobic, self-enclosed universe of suspense and violence. There really are no good guys here, just men morally clad in shades of grey, burdened by the albatross of their past misdeeds and their family history.

   Significantly, there are no children in the film and, if I am not mistaken, apart from horses, no animals either. The movie presents the West as rough and tumble world, where live is cheap and loyalty is a commodity to be bought and sold.

   As much as I like Zachary Scott, Lee Van Cleef, and Barton MacLane, I’d very much hesitate to categorize Treasure of Ruby Hills as a particularly good film. Sad to say, but it’s really just another mediocre mid-1950s Western. But somehow I managed to see it through to the very end, wondering how it’d all turn out and who’d still be alive and kicking once the proverbial dust settled. Take that for what it is, as it surely must mean something.

NOTE:   This movie is available for viewing on Hulu. Follow the link.

WILSON TUCKER – To Keep or Kill. Rinehart & Co., hardcover, 1947. Lion #21, paperback, 1950; Lion Library LL84, 1956.

   Tucker, who is probably better known today for his science fiction, wrote a total of five Charles Horne mysteries for Rinehart back between 1946 and 1951. After that he apparently decided he was better off not trying to write detective fiction, even as a sideline.

   Not that he left the field completely, but I think he probably made the right decision.

   Horne is a private eye. Most of his work is done for insurance companies. He quite vehemently does not do divorce work. The small metropolis of Boone, Illinois, where he has his office, is a figment of Tucker’s imagination, although there is a Boone County (up near Rockford).

   This is the second Horne book. As it begins, he is witness to an explosion. He thinks it’s a practical joke at first, but when it goes off it takes part of a city block and a couple of victims with it. Later, Horne is kidnapped and kept a prisoner in the home of the girl who planted the bomb. She’s a redhead, tall, beautiful, and as loopy as a loon.

   She is in love with Horne, she has been stalking him for months, and now that she “owns” him, so to speak, she expects — well, this was written before such explicit intentions could be stated, but those are the kinds of intentions she has. Viewed from today’s more permissive perspective, Horne’s brave resistance to temptation seems both admirable and refreshingly naive.

   Tucker’s style in this book is a burbling, slap-happy one, somewhat reminiscent of Fredric Brown in nature. In all, however, it hardly manages to disguise a total apparent lick of respect for logical thought processes. Or let me put it another way: the sort of logic that is used by all concerned would make sense only to the well-confined inmates of a lunatic asylum.

   It wouldn’t be hard to enjoy this quirky excuse for a detective story immensely. There is a thin line, it is said, between genius and lunacy. If I’d been able to follow the plot at all, I’d have said this was the work of the former.

   As for a letter grade, I’m not too sure of this one at all, but if it means anything to you, what I’m going to do, if I don’t change my mind tomorrow, is give this book a definite (C plus?).

— Reprinted from The MYSTERY FANcier, Vol. 5, No. 3, May/June 1981.

The Charles Horne series —

The Chinese Doll. Rinehart, 1946. Dell Mapback #343, 1949.

To Keep or Kill. Rinehart, 1947. Lion #21, 1950.
The Dove. Rinehart, 1948.
The Stalking Man. Rinehart, 1949. Mercury Mystery #150, no date.
Red Herring. Rinehart, 1951.



GEORGE C. APPELL – Gunman’s Grudge. Lion #139, paperback original, 1953; reprinted as Lion Library LL161, 1957.

   â€œBelongs among the best westerns of this or any other year.”     — STAG Magazine

   Now how’s them for creds!

   Actually, this is surprisingly fine: a fast, remorseless and straightforward tale of violence and damnation in the manner of Jim Thompson and James M. Cain — yes, it’s that good.

   Tracy Silleck opens the book on the run from killing the man who killed his dog. There’s a brief, rather cryptic scene early on as he returns to his home town and tries to reconnect with people who never really accepted him in the first place, then murders a man for no very good reason. Back on the run again, he takes refuge in an outlaw town where he’s quickly roped into another murder and slowly finds himself mired in the role of killer-for-hire.

   I’ve only read one other book by Appell (the rather unimpressive Ambush Hell) and it did nothing to prepare me for the unsettling nihilism of Gunman’s Grudge. I mentioned Jim Thompson with good reason, as this book recalls the best of Savage Night (published the same year, also by Lion) and The Getaway, which came several years later.

   Silleck’s character recalls the Thompson protagonist: drawn to violence but haunted by remorse. He’s no pulp-novel killer, but a man who can miscalculate, talk too much and worry over what he’s become and where he’s going. And as Grudge speeds to its predestined end, it carries the reader with him irresistibly.

William F. Deeck

CHRISTOPHER BUSH – The Case of the Platinum Blonde. Macmillan, US, hardcover, 1949. First published by Cassell, UK, hardcover, 1944.

   My copy of this novel is a previously owned one. One of the former owners wrote on the first page, “Good to the last suspect.” I quite agree with the anonymous reader that it’s a good mystery, but Ludovic Travers in this outing is not a very appealing detective. Perhaps the pain from his recently acquired war injury makes him irascible and thus rather irritating.

   Travers is convalescing at his sister’s home in the village of Cleavesham. In his rambles around the village he notices a man putting up a sign on another man’s house, a sign saying, among other things, “REMEMBER — THIS NIGHT SHALL THY SOUL BE REQUIRED OF THEE.”

   The next day Travers finds the occupant of the house in his living room with a bullet in his head. Because Travers loves “ironic situations and even creating them,” he toys with the evidence and does not reveal all to the police. And then he discovers that the wife of the Chief Constable, a man whom he admires, may be involved somehow.

   An interesting investigation by Travers, along with his friendly rival, George Wharton of Scotland Yard. But it would have been a better novel if Travers had been better behaved.

— Reprinted from The MYSTERY FANcier, Vol. 12, No. 1, Winter 1990.

Bibliographic Notes: Over a period of 42 years, from 1926 to 1968, Bush wrote over 60 detective novels under his own name, all with Ludovic Travers as the leading detective. Superintendent Wharton may have been his rival and ally in all of them as well, but this is not so indicated by Hubin. Bush also wrote a small numbers of crime and thriller novels as by Noel Barclay and Michael Home.

Reviewed by JONATHAN LEWIS:         

APACHE. United Artists, 1954. Burt Lancaster, Jean Peters, John McIntire, Charles Bronson, John Dehner, Morris Ankrum, Monte Blue. Based on the novel Broncho Apache by Paul Wellman. Director: Robert Aldrich.

   You’d think that a movie starring Burt Lancaster with strong supporting roles by John McIntire and Charles Bronson (billed as Charles Buchinsky) would be more captivating and engaging than Apache, a mid-1950s film about the life and times of Massai, one of the last Apache warriors. The film is based on Paul I. Wellman’s novel, Broncho Apache and on fact as well as fiction.

   The story follows Massai (Lancaster) as he escapes a prison train meant to deliver him and other Apache prisoners, including Geronimo (Monte Blue) to confinement in Florida. Massai makes his way through the Midwest, encountering Whites in St. Louis and a Cherokee Indian man who teaches him about the Cherokees’ decision to grow corn and to adopt a non-warrior lifestyle. Initially, Massai, who really isn’t all that personable a fellow, thinks little of this approach to living, but eventually decides to crow his own corn when he arrives back in Arizona.

   There is, of course, a love interest. Massai falls for Nalinle (Jean Peters), daughter of an Apache man who betrays him to the White authorities. He is a fugitive, after all. On his trail are two men, Al Sieber (McIntire) and the Apache Calvary officer Hondo (Bronson). Both of them are excellent in this otherwise average Western.

   Apache often feels labored, almost soporific. It’s not that there isn’t any action. There’s actually action a plenty, but much of it seems so forced and downright tedious. There is, however, one notable exception. In a tense, beautifully filmed sequence, Massai and Al Sieber (McIntire) play cat and mouse in Massai’s small cornfield. For a moment or two, it’s not quite clear who is going to best whom and with what weapon.

   Unfortunately, too many of the other chase sequences just aren’t all that thrilling. And then there’s the unavoidable question of whether the casting of the blue-eyed Lancaster as an Apache warrior was a good choice. I’ll leave that to future viewers to decide.

CONQUEST OF COCHISE. Columbia Pictures, 1953. John Hodiak, Robert Stack, Joy Page, Rico Alaniz. Director: William Castle.

   On the other hand, for a Western/historical drama that isn’t all that, you know, historically accurate, Conquest of Cochise is nevertheless a fairly entertaining action packed little film. Like Masterson of Kansas, which I reviewed here, Conquest of Cochise is a William Castle/Sam Katzman collaboration that holds up to the test of time far better than many other similarly situated lower budget 1950s Westerns.

   Why is this the case? First of all is the strong cast. Although they may not have been the biggest box office stars of their time, both John Hodiak, who portrays Apache chief Cochise, and Robert Stack, who portrays U.S. Calvary Major Tom Burke, are both solid actors more than capable of delivering above average performances. The two men’s attempt to bring peace between the United States and the Apache Nation is repeatedly thwarted by events both in, and out of, their direct control.

   The film also benefits greatly from the presence of Joy Page in her portrayal of Consuelo de Cordova, a Mexican woman caught between her family, the Apaches, and Major Burke’s romantic advances. Rico Alaniz, who may be familiar to fans of 1950s TV Westerns, portrays Felipe, a hotheaded Tucson man seething at the Apaches for the murder of his wife.

   The film’s story line, if not true to history, is both fairly straightforward and (thankfully) without a lot of the forced, well meaning, anti-racist platitudes that ironically only served to categorize Indians as a people almost irrevocably culturally apart from broader American society. In Conquest of Cochise, the Apaches are neither presented as fundamentally misunderstood “noble savages,” nor as mindless brutes. They are a people caught between the Americans and the Mexicans, with their leader Cochise trying to make good decisions under difficult geopolitical constraints.

   Indeed, Conquest of Cochise is a surprisingly thoughtful Western with some breathtaking scenery to boot. Although it doesn’t have the cinematography and sentimentalism of John Ford’s cavalry trilogy or the star power of James Stewart (Broken Arrow), William Castle’s Conquest of Cochise, with a running time of around seventy minutes, nevertheless remains a worthwhile investment of one’s time.

   True, it’s no classic. But there’s action, moderately well developed characters, internal and external conflict, and romance. Perhaps more importantly, it doesn’t try to be a heavy-handed horse opera.

   One final thing to consider: although it can be said about nearly every film ever made, I do think that this movie in particular has to be far more enjoyable when watched as it was meant to be seen on the big screen. Maybe it has something to do with Castle’s unique, if not easily categorized, vision of how a film should be directed so as to captivate the viewer’s attention.

   If you’ve been following the comments over the past couple of weeks, you will have discerned that I’ve been out of town for most of that time. Having decided to take my laptop with me, I’ve been able to keep up with email, more or less, and I’ve even been able to keep on posting while I’ve been away. Some of the reviews I’d prepared in advance, others I’ve had to improvise, with fairly decent results, except for the images, which I wasn’t always able to do justice to.

   I’ve therefore spent this evening upgrading all of the recent posts, going all the way back to November 12 and Mike Nevins’ review of the first Joe Gall book. Go back and take a look, if it so suits your fancy.

   I might also point to you that the comments following David Vineyard’s review of the movie Susan Slept Here last Sunday have evolved into a two-sided conversation between David and myself about the sad state of affairs in mystery writing today, in our opinions. Go back and read it, and join in, again if it suits your fancy.

   Hopefully I’ll be able to return to a regular schedule soon, but perhaps not tomorrow as (1) a huge Nor’easter is promised, with dire amounts of snow predicted, and (2) I have two and a half plastic postal bins containing held mail to work my way through. Nasty work, but someone’s got to do it.


TOUCH OF EVIL. Universal, 1958. Charlton Heston, Janet Leigh, Orson Welles, Joseph Calleia, Akim Tamiroff, Joanna Moore, Ray Collins, Dennis Weaver, Marlene Dietrich, Zsa Zsa Gabor. Screenplay: Orson Welles, based on the novel Badge of Evil, by Whit Masterson. Director: Orson Welles.

WHIT MASTERSON – Badge of Evil. Dodd Mead, hardcover, 1955. Reprinted as Touch of Evil, Bantam A1699, paperback, 1958; Carroll & Graf, paperback, 1992.

   In contrast to The Long Wait, reviewed here, Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil, now available in a restored Director’s Cut, begins its cinematic fireworks with the first shot and never pauses for the smoke to clear. The tale of bigoted cops and a corrupt investigation unfolds in scene after scene of sheer cinematic brilliance —

   — and I have to say it gets a bit tiring after a while; like watching unending MTV videos or Previews of Coming Attractions that never stop. The eye tires after forty minutes or so (This eye did, anyway.) and I was glad for the relative quiet of a few reflective moments with Marlene Dietrich at her weary best as a Gypsy fortune-teller (“Your future’s all used up.”) just one of a number of cameo appearances that include Ray Collins and Joseph Cotton from Citizen Kane, and Mercedes McCambridge as a lesbian biker.

   On the other hand, Whit Masterson’s book that this was based on, Badge of Evil, is so bland as to be resolutely unreadable. The flat prose recounts little but a few cardboard characters moving slowly through an unremarkable plot to no discernible end. But perhaps I shouldn’t be too hard on this book, since I couldn’t finish it; maybe things really picked up after the first fifty-odd pages.

Reviewed by DAVID VINEYARD:         

SUSAN SLEPT HERE. RKO Radio Pictures, 1954. Dick Powell, Debbie Reynolds, Anne Francis, Glenda Farrell, Alvy Moore, Horace McMahon, Les Tremayne. Screenplay by Alex Gottlieb, based on his play with Steve Fisher Directed by Frank Tashlin.

   â€œAny judge that starts handing out 17 year old girls to thirty five year old lawyers is going to be elected President next time.”

   This surprisingly open sex farce squeaks by for inclusion on this blog because it stars a former Philip Marlowe, Honey West, and is based on a play co-written by Steve Fisher (I Wake Up Screaming) — and yes, it as about as tentative as a connection to this site as I could find, but I came up with one anyway. You don’t have to buy it, just accept it.

   I don’t think you could sell this one today or make it, but somehow with Dick Powell and Debbie Reynolds and narrated by Powell’s screenwriter character’s Oscar, this one skates all over its premise, never quite going too far or letting you really consider what is going on here.

   Powell is Mark Christopher, screenwriter and novelist, whose career is headed south for the pole in double time. On Christmas Eve his cop pal Horace MacMahon shows up on his doorstep with juvenile delinquent Susan Landis, Debbie Reynolds, in tow. Christopher once considered writing a movie about a JD, maybe if he spends the evening with her he’ll get some ideas.

   Ideas he gets. Not for a screenplay, though.

   Powell is none too happy, but he can’t throw her back in reform school on Christmas Eve, so after they calm her down a bit, he arranges for his secretary Maud, Glenda Farrell (keep an eye out for Red Skelton in a cameo as her long lost boyfriend Oswald — “You’ll get another Oscar, I get an Oswald”), to keep her, but Maud is on a bender, and his old Navy pal Virgil, Alvy Moore, who was his lieutenant in the war, leaves him in the lurch. His fiancee Isabella, Anne Francis, isn’t the forgiving sort either when Susan answers his phone.

   Susan: She said she was going out with the assistant butler … What does an assistant butler do?

   After a night that includes a long gin game, an uncomfortable couch and Susan sleeping with a rolling pen under her pillow in his bedroom, Powell calls in lawyer Les Tremayne with the bright idea of marrying Susan — she has a paper from her mother in Peru on her honeymoon allowing her to marry — to keep her out of reform school. Of course in name only. When she is 18 and safe in four months, they’ll get her an annulment, some money, and a job.

   So it’s off to Vegas, and a honeymoon night spent on the dance floor, and the next morning Mark takes off to work in Sun Valley as Hurricane Isabella hits. Susan plans to leave, but Maud persuades her to take some motherly advice.

   Virgil: You, a mother?

   Maud: I typed the script for “Stella Dallas.”

   So Susan stays and spider lady Isabella gets thrown out, though she’s not through.

   Mark can’t get a divorce because they never consummated the marriage and Susan lets his lawyer know in no uncertain terms Mark can’t have an annulment, but he can a divorce. Then she very publicly lets everyone think she is pregnant and Mark assumes it was Virgil.

   Then his lawyer’s analyst convinces him that he’s in love with Susan.

   Mark: How can I love her, she’s a delinquent girl?

   Doctor: You seem to be a delinquent husband.

   Of course the age difference does come up, a determined Mark no match for an even more determined Susan.

   Mark: When I’m 60 how old will you be?

   Susan and Mark together: I’ll (You’ll) never be over 30.

   As Virgil informs him: You accidentally married the right girl.

   Of course Reynolds had a career at this point as the sexy wholesome outspoken but practical virgin (Tammy) and film makers of the era were experts at the tease, but this one teases hard with a difficult subject, and it could go so wrong so easily and doesn’t.

   Other than Cary Grant, I can’t think of any actor by Powell who could bring this off half so well.

   I suppose some one will find this offensive, but this is Hollywood and not the real world, a romantic comedy, and not a police blotter or a case for a social worker. Lighten up, recognize this has no connection to reality, and enjoy some fine players, finely playing their assigned rolls.

   This was Powell’s last film, and ironically includes a musical fantasy sequence from Susan’s dream, though he doesn’t croon. Don Cornell does the only song in the film other than the brief title song (“So This is the Kingdom of Heaven”). It’s fitting Powell that should go back to his roots for his last screen outing. He even wears a sailor suit in the fantasy sequence.

   To give this full credit, maybe no one in the world but Debbie Reynolds and Dick Powell could have pulled off how sexy this film is without offending anyone, and Frank Tashlin is one of the few directors who could have brought it off. (Tashlin had a great touch with humor and sex for someone who started out directing cartoons and made his live screen debut with Bob Hope and Trigger in Son of Paleface.)

   Susan Slept Here is bright, funny, sexy, gorgeous to look at, and deftly done at all points. Reynolds and Francis are at their most attractive and it is always fun to see Francis get a shot at comedy, something she was quite adept at. There is a very funny and at the same time sexy scene when teen Susan compares herself to Francis’s sexy photo and tries to rearrange things to better recreate it. It’s a perfect showcase for what Reynolds did better than almost anyone else. It’s fine and funny final nod to the medium for Powell, and its nice to see Farrell still funny and sassy this late in the game.

   It’s the kind of thing Rock Hudson and Doris Day would later do to great success, but lacking in the rather tasteless sniggering attitude to sex of those films.

Reviewed by JONATHAN LEWIS:         

  THE UNSTOPPABLE MAN. Argo Film Productions, UK, 1960. US release, 1961. Cameron Mitchell, Marius Goring (Inspector Hazelrigg), Harry H. Corbett, Lois Maxwell, Denis Gilmore, Humphrey Lestocq, Ann Sears. Based on the short story “Amateur in Violence,” by Michael Gilbert. Director: Terry Bishop.

   Sometimes criminals, despite all the possible planning, still pick the wrong target. That’s definitely the case in The Unstoppable Man, a taut British thriller. Directed by Terry Bishop, the movie stars Cameron Mitchell, a veteran actor best known for his work in American and Italian film as well on American television.

   Mitchell portrays James Kennedy, an American businessman in London whose business acumen seemingly is unparalleled. Kennedy is put to the test when his young son is kidnapped and held for ransom by a motley crew of thugs. Scotland Yard wants to take the lead, but Kennedy has his own plans. They include paying off the hostage takers in a greater amount than they demand, with the expectation that thieves aren’t the most honest of men and will gladly turn on each other for a few quid more.

   In The Unstoppable Man, that proves to be the case.

   One of the kidnapper gang ends up dead and helps lead Kennedy (and the cops) to the house where his son is being held. It’s there that the action finally, and somewhat belatedly, kicks in. Although he’s a man more used to the boardroom, Kennedy shows he can brawl as if he were in a barroom. There’s even a great scene – a pivotal one – where Kennedy utilizes a would-be flamethrower against a man involved in his son’s kidnapping.

   While there’s nothing in The Unstoppable Man that’s exceptional, that doesn’t mean that it isn’t a good — make that a very good — crime film. Running at around seventy minutes, it’s economical both on plot and the viewer’s time. But what it lacks in originality, it makes up for in atmosphere and an early 1960s jazz-influenced soundtrack that works very well.

   For crime fans, it’s worth watching if you get the opportunity. For Mitchell fans (and I know that some are out there), it’s a must see.

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