December 2014

THE NIGHT BEFORE THE DIVORCE. 20th Century Fox, 1942. Lynn Bari, Mary Beth Hughes, Joseph Allen Jr., Nils Asther, Truman Bradley, Kay Linaker, Lyle Latell. Director: Robert Siodmak.

   There are some funny moments in this not-so-funny film, it is true, but not too many. What makes the movie worth watching, though, is any moment that Lynn Bari is on the screen. At least in my opinion, and since she is the leading lady, she is on the screen quite often, a stunning brunette with lots of close-ups.

   Mary Beth Hughes, a blonde bombshell whose whispery come-hither voice will remind you of Marilyn Monroe, even before the latter ever dreamed of making a movie, is second-billed, but if Lynn Bari never became a star, not of the household name variety, so alas did not Mary Beth Hughes.

   The idea behind this film is that in many a marriage (1940s style) the man of the house would resent it if the woman of the family is more competent than he in almost everything. To George Nordyke (Joseph Allen) the final straw comes when his wife Lynn (Bari) has a lower golf score than he has ever manged to have, and she has only started to learn the game, while he has been playing for years.

   Trying to nab him on the rebound, even before the divorce is final, is Lola May (guess who?), who is more than willing to play weak and dependent. To tie this in more solidy with the purported purpose of this blog, Lynn’s new would-be boy friend is bumped off, and to get George back (though I’m not exactly sure why), she takes the blame and lets George help her out of the jam.

   Not exactly the funniest premise in the world, but perhaps it fared better back in the early 40s. Even back then, though, I’m willing to wager that this movie came and went without making much of a fuss.

DOROTHY SIMPSON – The Night She Died. Scribner’s, hardcover, 1981. Bantam, paperback, 1985. Poisoned Pen Press, trade paperback, 1998, First published in the UK by Michael Joseph, hardcover, 1981.

   In the world of crime fiction, there seems to be an unwritten law that a new private eye has to have a gimmick, a little quirk of behavior, perhaps, that will help him (or her) stand out from all the others. There is a similar theory for policemen, and it holds that because of the nature of their job, they need humanizing: a loving family, perhaps. Teething babies. Bad backs.

   Inspector Thanet is lucky. He has all three.

   His current case involves a murdered woman. Who killed her? Her husband, with whom she was seeing a marriage counselor? Her thwarted, amorous boss? The determined ex-suitor?

   Thanet’s investigation also takes him back into the past, over his sergeant’s objections, to dig up an unsolved murder the victim may have witnessed as a child. The problem is that looking into this old case is as dry and uninteresting as poking around in a pile of dusty bones, and it’d be awfully easy to give the story up as routine right here.

   And this you shouldn’t do, as Simpson has a terrific surprise in store for the persevering reader who sticks it out to the end. I suspect there’ll be a good many people who’ll never reach it. Exquisitely plotted, and ploddingly told — a sad combination.

— Reprinted from The MYSTERY FANcier, Vol. 5, No. 5, Sept-Oct 1981.

      The Inspector Thanet series —

1. The Night She Died (1981)
2. Six Feet Under (1982)
3. Puppet for a Corpse (1983)
4. Close Her Eyes (1984)
5. Last Seen Alive (1985)
6. Dead On Arrival (1986)

7. Element of Doubt (1987)
8. Suspicious Death (1988)
9. Dead By Morning (1989)
10. Doomed to Die (1991)

11. Wake the Dead (1992)
12. No Laughing Matter (1993)
13. A Day for Dying (1995)

14. Once Too Often (1998)
15. Dead and Gone (1999)

BILLY THE KID TRAPPED. PRC, 1942. Buster Crabbe, Al St. John, Bud McTaggart, Anne Jeffreys, Glenn Strange, Walter McGrail, Ted Adams, Jack Ingram, Milton Kibbee. Director: Sam Newfield.

   Let me say right off from the start that any movie with Anne Jeffreys in it can’t be all bad, but this one comes very very close. If only they’d given her something to do. As the sister of the recently deceased sheriff of Mesa City (gun poisoning), all she is allowed to do is stand around and direct admiring eyes at young and handsome Billy the Kid (Buster Crabbe), hinting at a possible romantic liaison between the two, even perhaps after the movie’s end, but young and handsome Billy does not even seem to notice.

   And the 10 to 12 year old boys who would made up the large part of viewing audience back in 1942 would have yelled something fierce if he had.

   Not that there aren’t possibilities in the plot, which begins with Billy and his two pals on the road being rescued from jail by a benefactor unknown. Set to be hanged the next morning for a killing they did not do, the three saddlemates are grateful but puzzled.

   Turns out (and this comes out early in the story) that the three, Bill, Fuzzy and Jeff, have been impersonated by three outlaws dressed up as them, and if they were to be hanged, there would be no one to blame the three outlaws’ crimes on.

   After this masterful plot is revealed, the rest of the story is a pure yawner. Lots of men on horses riding here and there, holding up stagecoaches, fist fights in saloons, gunmen lurking behind stable doors, the whole works. Me, no longer 10 or 12 years old, I fell asleep.

Reviewed by DAVID VINEYARD:          

P. M. HUBBARD – The Dancing Man. Macmillan, UK, hardcover, 1971. Atheneum, US, hardcover, 1971.

   â€œThis time I heard the noise of the leaves. It came quietly at first. I could not have heard it at all if the silence had not been so complete. It grew louder … getting nearer …”

   That evocative moment is the true voice of P. M. Hubbard, one of the most interesting thriller writers of his time and one too little known on this side of the Atlantic.

   Philip Michael Hubbard made his debut with the fine thriller Flush as May, and continued at the same high level throughout his career as a writer. Among his many books were the spy thriller Kill Claudio, the Gothic The Tower, Hive of Glass, High Tide, Whisper in the Glen and others.

   His novels have remarkably well drawn settings that are characters in themselves, Gothic atmosphere of the true definition of the term without a governess to be seen, often good bits about small sail boats, and interesting heroes who tend to be on the amoral side and not always the nicest of people. His secondary characters are often exceptionally well drawn and his villains human but with a Luciferian air.

   The Dancing Man is perhaps the best of his thrillers on all these accounts, the cast stripped down to a handful of individuals; the hero Mark Hawkins; his missing brother Dick; Merrion on whose land Dick has gone missing; Merrion’s virginal sister; Merrion’s sexy wife; and a local madman (according to fiction every village in England, Ireland, Scotland, and Wales has one) of the lurking threatening type.

   And of course two other characters: a Victorian house in northern Wales, and a megalithic statue on which is carved the figure of a dancing man: “Someone had carved a human figure, a matchstick man sketched in single strokes but still horribly alive. It danced on the stone holding its stick-like arms over its head and kicking its legs outward, its enormous penis stiffly in front of it.”

   Hubbard was a master of evoking and using settings, and here he has been compared to M. R. James and Arthur Machen in his ability to suggest something evil lurking just beyond the ken of the average man. A large neolithic circle also figures in the action, and a 9th century Latin edict.

   Hubbard also has a happy facility with words, calling the figure a “happy little ithyphallic manikin … consciously and deliberately devilish.” It’s a good example of the pleasure of reading the highly literate Hubbard, at once evoking the absurdity of the figure and the horror lurking behind it.

   Hubbard is a minimalist, his novels short, to the point, deftly drawn without burying the reader in extraneous detail. You learn just enough about Mark and Dick Hawkins and the people surrounding them to care what happens so that the suspense and atmosphere have real impact. Kill Claudio, a Buchanesque thriller, is practically a novella, and a hundred times more suspenseful than today’s overwritten over long thrillers. Above all the writing, the vivid settings, and often the hint of brimstone and sulfur lingering in the air make his novels unique among the thriller writers of his era.

   Dick Hawkins is fascinated by prehistory and the sinister megalith. Merrion is an archaeologist more interested in Medieval history and a Cistercian abbey that once stood near the house. The two men are at loggerheads in their obsessions. Into this walks Mark Hawkins, a catalyst like all Hubbard protagonists, who will trigger ancient violence and modern murder, and as in any Hubbard a novel hints of the erotic as obvious as that “ithyphallic manikin”, among the often amoral and violent set of characters. Merrion’s sister may be virginal but you can’t expect that to last in a Hubbard novel and may not mean quite the same as in other gothics.

   The Dancing Man builds to a fine creepy violent ending, happy of course, or as happy as Hubbard’s less than admirable heroes are likely to find.

   Anthony Boucher and other critics championed Hubbard, and with good reason. He was a superb writer and an exceptional storyteller capable of weaving a spell that held the reader for the short span of a Hubbard novel. If ever there was a ‘can’t put them down’ writer it was him. You may be grateful they are short, because I read most of them in one sitting.

   Flush as May, High Tide, and Kill Claudio all had American paperback editions, and The Dancing Man was a choice of the Mystery Book Club so those at least should not be too hard to find.

   If you don’t know Hubbard’s work look him up, I think you will be entranced by his dark atavistic world, amoral heroes, and sinister settings. He spun a good plot as well. I really can’t think of anyone to compare his work to, he’s an original, and unique in that I cannot think of another Gothic writer I would call a minimalist.

Editorial Note:   P. M. Hubbard, the man and his work, has also been covered on the primary Mystery*File website. Check it out here.

Reviewed by JONATHAN LEWIS:          

THE PLUNDERERS. Allied Artists, 1960. Jeff Chandler, John Saxon, Dolores Hart, Marsha Hunt, Jay C. Flippen. Director: Joseph Pevney.

   The Plunderers appeared on the scene at the tail end of a great decade for Westerns when the genre was beginning to show moderate signs of fatigue. It wasn’t necessarily that Westerns in the early 1960s were necessarily bad films or sub-par Westerns, not at all. It’s just that after the 1950s – a truly golden era for the Western – there wasn’t much new, in terms of plot or structure, under the sun.

   Not yet anyway.

   The genre, of course, would be reinvigorated soon enough, thanks in large part to (love ‘em or hate ‘em) Sergio Leone, Sam Peckinpah, and Monte Hellman, auteurs willing to take Westerns into cinematic realms more daring, violent, or, downright quirkier, than those great late 1950s Ranown cycle films of Budd Boetticher and the first films of Howard Hawks’s Rio Bravo trilogy. These directors who came to the fore in the 1960s built on the groundwork laid before them by directors such as William Castle, Andre De Toth, and Jacques Tourneur, among others.

   The TV Western in the early 1960s, of course, was another story altogether. There were still plenty to choose from on the air; many of them were quite good and stand the test of time.

   The Plunderers is best understood as a product of its historical context, coming as it did between the end of the 1950s Western and the dawn of the revisionist and Spaghetti Westerns. Directed by Joseph Pevney (Star Trek), The Plunderers, which feels more like an above average TV episode more than a feature film, stars Jeff Chandler as Sam Christy, a rancher wracked by doubt and self-loathing. Severely wounded during the Civil War, Sam was left with only one good arm and a chip on his shoulder the size of the West Texas.

   So it’s perhaps no surprise that when four marauding youngsters roll into Trail City and proceed to ravage the place, Sam’s natural response is to revert his gaze and pretend it’s not of his business. That, of course changes, when Sam realizes how much the townsfolk, particularly the lovely Ellie Walters (Dolores Hart), need him to take a stand.

    And take a stand he does. With a knife and with a gun, Sam decides it’s time to fight back against the four hooligans. Among the criminals is, Rondo (John Saxon), a cunning Mexican with some historical baggage on his mind. He has his eye, and occasionally his hands, on Ellie, including in one particularly brutal attempted sexual assault scene.

   Despite the semi-tired plot of townsfolk banding together to face down a threat, The Plunderers does have one great thing going for it. And that’s Jeff Chandler, whose acting skills are on full display here. Without much seeming effort, Chandler is able to vividly express the emotions of a man haunted by wartime trauma. He’s a man alone, but one who desperately wants human connection. He’s a fighter afraid to fight, and a lover afraid to love.

   When all is said and done, when Sam Christy decides to fight back, he’s not afraid to fight dirty. In an otherwise slow, but steady, paced movie, that’s when the action really begins. The Plunderers may not be the best Western out there, but it’s an solid film with very little working against it, apart from the fact that the cinematography is overall forgettable and the natural scenery all but not existent. But it’s nevertheless a good little morality play about courage and manhood.

Reviewed by Mark D. Nevins:

JOHN D. MacDONALD – The Damned. Gold Medal #240, paperback original, 1952. Reprinted many times. First hardcover edition: Robert Hale, UK, 2005 (allegedly only 300 copies printed).

   I’ll transparently admit that John D. MacDonald is not only one of my favorite crime writers, but one of my favorite writers, period. His voice, prose style, and regular authorial interjections, which many readers seem to really dislike, are what set him apart from the pack for me: he’s smart, observant, has fascinating insights into human nature, and can really tell a story too.

   While I’m close to the end of my slow in-order read of the Travis McGee series, I’m comforted to know that I still have a lot of his stand-alones to go. The Damned is from early in MacDonald’s career, when he was just starting to leave science fiction behind. It’s also allegedly one of his best-selling titles, owing to a blurb that the publisher somehow tricked the enormously popular Mickey Spillane into giving: “I wish I had written this book.”

   I don’t think The Damned is a typical JDM book, and it’s probably even a stretch to call it “crime fiction,” even though some people die and even though you’d likely find the book in that section of a used bookshop. The Damned picks up the lives of about a dozen Americans who are stranded together in Mexico because of a broken ferry, and as such it’s a series of portraits both natural and psychological.

   It’s a wonderful, fun, and even poignant read, with some interesting insights too into views of the time, 60 years ago — sort of a little Gold Medal 1950’s Canterbury Tales.

William F. Deeck

LENORE GLEN OFFORD – Walking Shadow. Simon & Schuster, hardcover, 1959; Detective Book Club, hardcover reprint, 3-in-1 edition. Award Books A203F, paperback, 1966.

   Barbara Wyeth, stepdaughter of Tod McKinnon, mystery writer and now TV script writer for the Harrington Harte series, is in Oregon for the Shakespearean Festival. She is not an aspiring actress, however, even though she is cast in the role of a witch in Macbeth; she prefers to work on the costumes for the plays.

   Taking under her wing a young lady who obviously has some serious problems, Barby finds herself with problems, too. Her new friend is acting very strangely since she read a newspaper report of an “tentatively identified” body being found near San Francisco. Then things involving her friend begin taking place at the theater — thefts, poison oak in makeup, and the like. And one night Barby is attacked by a sword-wielding creature in one of the dressing rooms.

   McKinnon comes to the rescue, putting aside his script difficulties to aid his stepdaughter. He manages to find out who the corpse really was and who made her a corpse and why. Not a fair-play mystery, but nonetheless enjoyable for the theater setting and a few of the characters.

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

NOTE: Previously reviewed on this blog are:

       The Glass Mask
       The Smiling Tiger (with a complete bibliography for the author)


DIVA. Les Films Galaxie, France, 1981. United Artists Classics, US, 1982. Wilhelmenia Wiggins Fernandez, Frédéric Andréi, Richard Bohringer, Thuy An Luu, Jacques Fabbri, Chantal Deruaz, Anny Romand, Roland Bertin. Based on a novel by Daniel Odier (as Delacorta). Director: Jean-Jacques Beineix.

   I am beginning to think that recommending films to friends should be relegated to the same, ill-advised category as counseling friends who are battling toward divorce or who want to prevent their teenagers from making the same mistakes yours did.

   E. T. made me feel better about children and aliens than anything since Close Encounters, and the newly released French import Diva provoked in me similar feelings about opera singers, French postal workers, and fourteen-year-old Vietnamese flower children. I thought it the most exhilarating thriller in my recent memory, the most stylish, the most imaginative in its use of fairy-tale elements to grace an unlikely mix of operamania/record pirating/corrupt police officials/drugs and prostitution with wit, affection and visual beauty.

   I also liked the references to other film directors (of which the most engaging was the Renoir sequence involving a “blind” beggar) and wallowed in the sentimental ending.

   The friends to whom I had recommended the film stared glumly into space when I asked them what they had thought of it. One of them muttered something about the film being too “self-conscious,” while the other was more to the point: “Why when I see only two films a year, does one of them have to be Diva?”

Well, I will say no more except to add that I think that Diva may be a movie buff’s delight, but too special for some people’s tastes, and if you happen to see it and don’t like it, don’t complain to me. I’m only recommending it to myself, and I am going to see it a second time.

— Reprinted from The MYSTERY FANcier, Vol. 6, No. 4, July-August 1982.

A 1001 MIDNIGHTS Review
by Bill Crider

W. T. BALLARD – Murder Las Vegas Style. Tower, paperback original, 1967. Belmont, paperback, 1970.

   After the demise of the pulps in the early 19508, W. T. Ballard found a career as a prolific creator of paperback original novels, both mysteries and westerns. His mysteries appeared under his own name, as well as the names Neil MacNeil and P. D. Ballard, and he even wrote at least one novel in the Nick Carter series. Many of Ballard’s novels were set in Las Vegas, including three in a series featuring Detective Lieutenant Max Hunter.

   Murder Las Vegas Style is a private eye novel featuring Mark Foran, who finds himself involved in what at first appears to be a murder/suicide. The question of an inheritance is involved, depending on which of the victims died first, and as Foran digs into the case, though he seems to be making little progress, there are three serious attempts on his life, along with two more murders.

   The characters include hoods, beautiful women, millionaires, and cops,all of whom are convincingly sketched. The plotting is as convoluted as one could wish, although matters appear simple on the surface. Surprisingly, Ballard avoids the casinos for the most part and instead does an admirable job of giving a fine picture of the “other side” of Las Vegas, the desert.

   For more of Ballard’s LasVegas, see his “straight” novel, Chance Elson (1958), and the books in the Hunter series, including Pretty Miss Murder (1961).

   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:   Previously reviewed on this blog was Ballard’s Say Yes to Murder.

Reviewed by JONATHAN LEWIS:         

BLUE THUNDER. Columbia Pictures, 1983. Roy Scheider, Warren Oates, Candy Clark, Daniel Stern, Paul Roebling, David Sheiner, Joe Santos, Malcolm McDowell. Director:
John Badham.

MIRACLE MILE. Hemdale Film, 1988. Anthony Edwards, Mare Winningham, John Agar, Lou Hancock, Mykel T. Williamson, Kelly Jo Minter. Screenwriter & Director: Steve De Jarnatt.

   On the surface, at least, Blue Thunder and Miracle Mile don’t have all that much in common, at least in terms of plot. But, dig a bit deeper, and you’ll realize that they actually do share some remarkable similarities, including a helicopter.

   Most obviously, though, they are both 1980s films set in Los Angeles in which the city itself becomes a character. More poignantly, both films tap into the public’s latent fears. While in Blue Thunder, the fear of both street crime and the extreme measures that law enforcement might employ to combat serves as the basis for the plot, in Miracle Mile, the fear of nuclear annihilation and the subsequent inability to escape a densely populated urban corridor pervades the movie’s dark, claustrophobic atmosphere.

   Blue Thunder is, however, the far better of the two films. Directed by John Badham (War Games), the movie stars Roy Scheider (Jaws) as Frank Murphy, a LAPD helicopter pilot struggling with PTSD from his Vietnam years. Murphy and his partner, portrayed by Daniel Stern, are assigned to operate a super high-tech chopper, the eponymous Blue Thunder.

   Not only does the bird have offensive weaponry, it also has ridiculously intrusive surveillance equipment. The apparent goal of the LAPD, in conjunction with the military brass, is to have Blue Thunder on hand in preparation for any possible disturbances associated with the forthcoming 1984 Summer Olympics.

   All is not what it seems however. That’s even more the case when Murphy’s ex-Vietnam colleague, Colonel F.E. Cochrane (Malcolm McDowell), shows up with his scheming grin and trademark hand gesture (you’re just going to have to watch it). He’s a reptile in a flight suit, that one.

   As it turns out, there is a scheme – a conspiracy – to stir up urban violence in Los Angeles as a means of selling the LAPD and maybe even other city police departments, on the necessity of having their own Blue Thunder’s. It’s all brooding, dark paranoia on full display here, worsened by Murphy’s repeated flashbacks.

   Unfortunately, the somewhat formulaic plot doesn’t gel as much as the visuals, some of which are truly stunning. The city of Los Angeles, as seen from above, is on full display here and it’s a beautiful vista, particularly at night. The scenes of Blue Thunder flying above Century City are breathtaking, as some of the helicopter fight scenes.

   There’s one other strong point worth mentioning, and that is the presence of actor Warren Oates, who portrays Captain Jack Braddock, Murphy’s cynical, tough-as-nails superior. Oates was just perfectly cast here, reminding me a bit of Lee Van Cleef’s unforgettable role in John Carpenter’s Escape From New York. Scheider’s not bad, either. Not by a long shot. But I don’t think many would consider Blue Thunder to have been one of his best roles.

   Miracle Mile is a significantly weaker film. Like Blue Thunder, however, it has some great on location shots of Los Angeles, specifically the Miracle Mile shopping district on Wilshire Boulevard that stretches past Johnnie’s Coffee Shop toward the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the La Brea Tar Pits.

   The film unfolds like a Cornell Woolrich story or an Alfred Hitchcock film. Harry Washello (Anthony Edwards) is a somewhat mild-mannered jazz musician visiting the City of Angels. He’s apparently never really found true love. All that changes when he meets Julie Peters (Mare Winningham), a waitress who lives with her grandmother at the Park La Brea apartments.

   After oversleeping and missing their date, Washello heads out to the diner where Julie works, hoping to catch up with her or at least find a way of contacting her at home. While outside of the diner, he hears the telephone in the phone booth ringing.

   So he picks it up.

   Wrong number.

   Turns out that the guy on the other end of the line works at a missile silo in North Dakota and is trying to phone his father in Orange County to give him heads up about a pending nuclear missile attack. By pending, I mean within an hour or so.

   It’s a wonderfully suspenseful premise that just isn’t executed very well, making the movie far less thrilling than it could have been. The rest of the film revolves around Washello’s attempts to make people believe he isn’t lying, to woo Julie, and to escape from Los Angeles. By helicopter no less.

   Although Miracle Mile isn’t a particularly great movie, it does benefit from one of the boldest and most daring endings I’ve seen in a film from that era. It turns out the anonymous caller was right. There is a nuclear war afoot.

Next Page »