October 2017


THE SPANIARD’S CURSE. Independent Film Distributors, UK, 1958. Tony Wright, Lee Patterson, Susan Beaumont, Michael Hordern, Ralph Truman, Henry Oscar. Screenplay by Kenneth Hyde, Ralph Kemper, Roger Proudlock. Story by Edith Pargeter. Directed by Ralph Kemper.

        “I call for the four of you to meet me before the Assizes of the Dying, and answer for your crimes …”

   The film opens with a pickpocket (mild mannered Henry Oscar) outside a theater (**) relieving a man of the contents of his overcoat pocket, then focuses on the date displayed in a store window. The titles run and as the date changes we cut to a headline that the jury is about to come in on the murder of an actress.

   We cut to the jury room where a military type bullies the meek foreman into a guilty verdict though the evidence is circumstantial and the crime calls for the death penalty, then under attack in England. The verdict is rendered and Justice Manton (Michael Hordern) delivers the death penalty.

   The accused man then speaks, reiterating his innocence, and uttering the curse of the title, a call for the Judge, the Council, the Foreman of the Jury, and the real killer to stand with him in a higher court, the “Assizes of the Dying,” and hear their judgement. In short, to die with him and be judged.

   Listening to the proceedings, are the judge’s newsman playboy son Charley (Tony Wright), his ward Margaret (Susan Beaumont), and the victim’s Canadian cousin Mark (Lee Patterson). When Mark and Margaret meet later in a tea shop they admit they think the convicted man, Stevenson, is innocent, but don’t plan to do anything about it until they witness the curse seeming to come to life … the jury Foreman is hit and killed by a car outside the court in front of them.

   There is not much more I can reveal without giving too much away. Stevenson dies the next morning, and the day after a piece of jewelry from the crime is pawned casting doubt on his guilt.

   One by one the characters are revealed, layers of deception stripped away, and suspicion cast on them even as Margaret and Mark, with help from crime reporter Charley, investigate the crime.

   The solution may be obvious to readers of this blog, but it is a good mystery, with numerous reasonable red herrings, more than a modicum of suspense, and that mysterious curse, the summons to the “Assizes of the Dying” that like one of John Dickson Carr’s logically explained impossible crimes, still has the hint of sulfur and brimstone long after the fact.

   The finale and last scene are the perfect wrap up to a solid sub-Hitchcockian suspense film with more than its share of fair play detecting.

   Solid performances bolster this excellent mystery film, especially from Wright who previously scored as the sociopathic Jack Havoc in the film version of Margery Allingham’s A Tiger in the Smoke.

   And for anyone who didn’t notice, the story is credited to Edith Pargeter, the well-known and respected English historical novelist better known to us as Ellis Peters of the Felse family and Brother Cadfael mysteries.

   Find this one, it’s a sleeper.

(**)   In the opening the play advertised at the theater where the pickpocket’s crime sets the plot in motion is “Meet Mr. Coleman” and a faint bit of music reminiscent of the famous theme from the play and film Meet Mr. Callaghan is heard as the pickpocket lifts his loot.

   That may or may not also be a nod to star Tony Wright who would play Peter Cheyney’s British Private Detective Slim Callaghan in two French films. If not, the coincidence is even more intriguing in a film where coincidence plays such a fateful role.


THE ISLAND OF DR. MOREAU. American International Pictures, 1977. Burt Lancaster (Dr. Paul Moreau), Michael York, Nigel Davenport, Barbara Carrera, Richard Basehart. Based on the novel by H. G. Wells. Director: Don Taylor.

   Burt Lancaster puts in a superb performance as the Dr. Moreau in this 1977 cinematic adaptation of the extraordinarily influential H.G. Wells novella about a mad scientist turning animals into men on a remote Pacific island.

   Unlike Charles Laughton in the pre-code sleazefest Islands of Lost Souls (1932), who never seemed to be a comfortable fit for the role, Lancaster portrays Moreau as a vaguely sympathetic antihero who genuinely wants to do good for the work, but who gradually transforms into a bestial, hateful figure. Lancaster had a way of just using his eyes to convey emotion and he does it wonderfully here. His Moreau is a great movie villain. Why? Because he has reasons for doing what he is doing and, more importantly, deep down he thinks he’s doing the right thing.

   That’s not to say that Michael York, whose performance I absolutely loved as D’Artagnan in The Three Musketeers (1973), isn’t good in this film as well. He portrays Braddock, the shipwreck survivor who washes up on Moreau’s island, totally unaware of what he is about to encounter. But there’s something a little too innocent about the Braddock character. He’s nowhere near as formidable a figure as Moreau.

   Which leads me to the film’s plot. In many ways, if one were to view Braddock (York) as the protagonist, the movie would be a meandering mess. This is mainly because, for most of the movie, it’s not clear exactly what Braddock wants. To escape the island? Unlike in Island of Lost Souls where the shipwrecked man was truly trapped on the island, Braddock actually still has his rowboat. It’s a little worse for wear, but he’s safely hidden it on the island.

   So escaping is not what he wants. Is it that he wants to discover what Moreau is up to? Well, it doesn’t take him long to do so and Moreau is more than willing to fill in the blanks. It’s only toward the tail end of the movie that he actually wants something – to escape from Moreau’s captivity after the mad doctor performed a sick experiment on him – but that’s too little too late.

   What makes the movie work is not York’s character, but Lancaster’s. The Island of Dr. Moreau is truly the story of Dr. Moreau, about his ambitions and his downfall. In that sense, the film is as much as horror story as a tragedy. And that’s where Lancaster’s stellar performance comes in. Portraying Moreau as a man capable of great things, but who succumbs to his own bestial nature, is what makes this adaptation, despite its numerous flaws, a chilling portrait of a scientist who defies the laws of nature and pays the ultimate price for it.

Reviews by L. J. Roberts

IAN RANKIN – Even Dogs in the Wild. John Rebus #20. Little Brown & Co., hardcover, January 2016. Back Bay Books, softcover, December 2016.

First Sentence:   Eventually the passenger ejected the tape and tossed it on to the back seat.

   DI Siobhan (Sha-von) Clarke and Malcolm Fox, formerly with the Complaints bureau, have been assigned to investigate the death of David Minton, a man with friends in high places. It was clearly not an interrupted robbery since nothing is missing, but something was left behind; a threatening note.

   Retirement doesn’t suit John Rebus and is happy to help Clarke and Fox. What he didn’t expect is a call from “Big Ger” Cafferty, a man Rebus would dearly love to put in prison. Someone shot at Cafferty, and left him a note with the same message that Minton received.

   Although prologues can be an extremely annoying element, in this case it does provide a rather intriguing opening.

   The Rebus books, as with most series, are best read in order as it allows one to show how the relationships have developed over time, such as the friendship between Clarke and Fox, and the new twist in the highly adversarial relationship between Rebus and Cafferty. That said, it is a credit to Rankin that he provides sufficient backstory on his characters that the books can be read as standalones without new readers feeling lost.

   It is the characters who draw us in. There is a sense of a moral code driving Rebus, Malcolm, and Clarke that makes them so strong and compelling. They provide a good balance, one to the another, as well. Where Rebus might be willing to bend the rules, Malcolm will not. The addition of something as mundane as— “…a cardboard cup of scalding tea and a cling-film-tuna sandwich…” adds an element of normalcy and veracity.

   Rankin’s dialogue is wonderful, particularly with his inclusion of wry humor— “Now, is there any chance you can get Jackie Stewart here to put the foot down?” His voice, in general, makes his books a real pleasure to read, even when the rules of grammar are off— “No detective wanted a lawyer to think they were more stupid than most lawyers already considered them to be.” His descriptions are both evocative and pause-worthy— “Edinburgh had always seemed to Rebus a city that liked to keep its counsel and its secrets.”

   Even Dogs in the Wild is such a good book filled with excellent characters, and very good twists. Rankin is an author who never disappoints.

— For more of LJ’s reviews, check out her blog at : https://booksaremagic.blogspot.com/.

   This review by Mike Doran first appeared on this blog as Comment #28 to my review of “Legend of Crystal Dark,” an earlier episode of 77 Sunset Strip, one from season two. Thinking that his comments deserved a wider audience, I asked Mike if I might post it here as well. He most graciously agreed:


77 SUNSET STRIP “The Target.” ABC, 24 January 1964 (Season 6, Episode 18.) Efrem Zimbalist Jr. (Stuart Bailey), Keith Andes, Jeanne Cooper, Joan Staley, Lyle Talbot, Les Tremayne, Forrest Lewis, Shirley Mitchell, Lawrence Dobkin, James Lydon, Tony Barrett, William Conrad. Producer: William Conrad. Associate producer: James Lydon. Executive producer: Jack Webb. Writer: Lawrence Dobkin. Director: Tony Barrett.

   As of last week, MeTV completed the 6th season of 77 Sunset Strip, which means it is no longer “lost.”

   I suppose someone will be writing up the whole season for you, someone far more knowledgeable than I.

   That said, I’d like to talk about “The Target,” which was third from last to run on ABC (the rerun season went back to the Version Originale).

   â€œThe Target” was about an ex-reporter (Keith Andes), just out of prison on a bum rap, who gets shot at just as he arrives home.

   It seems that Andes has been writing The Book that will blow the lid off some racketeers old and older; these make up Stu Bailey’s suspect pool.

   On a hunch, I held off watching this one until the end, after seeing all the others — the majority of which, in my view, could have easily been done on the old show in the old style.

   I’m talking about the plots; the main difference between old-style and new-style was amputating Efrem Zimbalist’s manners; the suave, well-spoken Bailey of old-style became a snarling wiseacre who was grubbing for a buck, insulting everybody along the way.

   This approach didn’t last long; as season 6 progressed, Bailey became less gratuitously nasty. (He’d suddenly developed a ferocious hatred for police, which would have definitely shocked Lt. Roy Gilmore; this was the first characteristic of nu-Bailey to go.)

   About midway through the cycle, Bailey’s unseen stenographer Hannah suddenly became seen, in the person of the above-average-looking Joan Staley; her presence turned Old Stu into a major flirt (and don’t think that certain recent headlines about a Major Hollywood Figure didn’t occur to me while I was watching).

   I might also mention that the 77SS opening titles were changed about the same time; Zimbalist’s mournful ascent within the Bradbury Building gave way to a long tracking shot of Old Stu walking the Mean Streets at night.

   I digress; back to “The Target.”

   I mentioned above that I saved watching this to last. Beforehand, I learned something about it that led me to believe that “The Target” was intended to be the Final Episode of 77.

   It was the casting of three of the to-be-exposed mob types:

       Bill Conrad (Producer) as a semi-crooked fight promoter.

       Lawrence Dobkin (Director) as a publisher who started out in nudie books.

       Tony Barrett (Writer) as a retired procurer.

   â€¦ And as a Bonus for the dweebs in the crowd: James Lydon (Associate Producer) as a convict who starts Stu Bailey out in his investigation.

   About this last:

   During this time, one of our local Chicago stations was running a well-known series of comedy features from the ’40s, which my family watched faithfully every Saturday afternoon.We’d stopped watching 77 by this point, but now I wish we hadn’t.

   Thinking back, my brother, sisters, and I might have gotten a charge out of our Dad telling us all:

   â€œLook at that, guys – Henry Aldrich is in the clink!”

   Anyhow, this sort-of group appearance by the 77 Sunset Strip front office seems to be to be a grand gesture of a kind from Old Hollywood Pros who knew the end was near and decided to have a little fun on the way out.

   * … unless, of course, I’m wrong …

LESLIE CHARTERIS – The Saint on the Spanish Main. Doubleday Crime Club, US, hardcover, 1955. Hodder & Stoughton, UK, hardcover, 1956. US paperback reprints include: Avon #771, 1955; Macfadden, 1966; Charter, February 1981.

   A collection of five novellas and novelettes, that find Simon Templar island hopping across the Caribbean — no surprise there, given the title. As an adventurous rogue working alone, The Saint is in good form, but not great. I find these shorter stories taking place later in The Saint’s career less interesting than the novel-length format at the beginning.

   The shorter form cramps his style, to my way of thinking, nor does he have villains worthy of his undeniable talent to bring the ungodly down. His travels take him from Bimini (“The Effete Angler”), Nassau (“The Arrow of God”), Jamaica (“The Black Commissar”), Puerto Rico (“The Unkind Philanthropist”), The Virgin Islands (“The Old Treasure Story”) and Haiti (“The Questing Tycoon”).

   You learn early on, in “Angler,” to be suspicious of everyone, but yet in “Philanthropist,” one more twist would have made the story even more delicious (if I understood the ending correctly). One of the stories, “The Arrow of God,” is of the detective variety, but it depends solely on reading one certain word and using it to identify the killer out of a group of possible suspects, all of whom have a motive.

   But even if not the best of The Saint, Leslie Charteris always had a magical way with words, and reading these stories, some for the second time, somehow had a way of taking me back to the days of my youth, when I was much younger.

BLACK SPURS. Paramount Pictures, 1965. Rory Calhoun, Linda Darnell, Terry Moore, Scott Brady, Lon Chaney [Jr.], Richard Arlen, Bruce Cabot, Patricia Owens, James Best, Jerome Courtland, DeForest Kelley. Screenplay: Steve Fisher. Director: R. G. Springsteen.

   Let me explain the title first. Anxious to earn some money so he can get married, a ranch foreman (Rory Calhoun) goes after a bank robber named El Pescadore, and along with the $3000 reward money, he also earns the right to wear the outlaw’s trademark spurs. He also loses the girl he was going to marry in the process, and soon, as he captures bad guy after bad guy, he crosses the line and (ta-boom), he’s a Bounty Hunter.

   Which apparently is one rank lower than a scumlord, though it’s not clear from the move exactly why. We soon see that he’s crossed another line, however, as we find him promising to turn the small settlement of Lark, Kansas, into a helltown, forcing the railroad to move its forthcoming spur somewhere more profitable for the man he’s working for.

   Guess who’s married to the sheriff of Lark, Kansas? (If you don’t know, go back and read the first paragraph again.) Guess who gets religion fifteen minutes before the end of the movie? (Aw, you’ve seen it before.)

   Steve Fisher, who wrote the screenplay, was one of the better pulp writers of the 1930s before going to Hollywood, so the story is actually pretty good. It is certainly a step above the average Gene Autry picture, say, but it’s no classic either. The cast of veteran actors seem to know what they are doing at all times, but it’s a downright shame that Linda Darnell had to end her career as the madame of a traveling group of bordello girls — this was the last film she made before she died.

— Reprinted from Mystery*File #24, August 1990 (slightly shortened and revised).


FRONTIER DOCTOR “Strange Cargo.” Syndicated; Hollywood Television Service. 23 May 1959 (Season 1, Episode 35). Rex Allen as Dr. Bill Baxter. Director: William Witney.

   For a small town western doctor and a relatively short career, Dr. Baxter certainly seems to have gotten himself involved in a good many dramatic medical crises. The single season of 39 episodes had one each and every week, and I don’t know, but the one in “Strange Cargo” may have topped them all: Bubonic plague. The Black Death.

   It begins with the death of a sailor on a ship heading from the seaport town of Vista, Texas, to New Orleans, then the trail leads to a pair of unscrupulous trappers back in Dr. Bill’s home town of Rising Springs. Along the way there were three deaths caused by the plague, one brutal shooting, a furious fist fight in the back of a runaway wagon, and a huge fire in a warehouse full of infected furs.

   Bill travels in a two horse buggy to get around, but don’t let that fool you. He’s pretty handy with his fists as well. Either they hired a lot of extras for a few scenes or they used stock footage from other films to a very nice advantage. All in all, a good way to spend 25 minutes of western adventure time, William Witney style. (He directed all but two episodes of the entire series.)

William F. Deeck

JOHN NEWTON CHANCE – Aunt Miranda’s Murder. Macdonald, UK, hardcover, 1951. Dodd Mead, US, hardcover, 1951.

   Aunt Miranda is Miranda Jeans, author of 49 novels of what appear to be romantic suspense. It is unclear whether Jeans, considering that she has been married three times, is the name under which her books appear. Some of her titles are High Honeysuckle, The Weak Avenger and The Wraith of Retribution.

   At age 84, Aunt Miranda feels that she is near death. Having been bothered by a ne’er-do-well nephew for some years and having no wish that her heirs should be bothered by him after her death, she threatens to kill him. The next day, the nephew’s body is found under the couch in the music room, shot to death with a pistol presented to her some years ago by an admirer.

   Covering up for Aunt Miranda becomes the order of the day, although no one seems sure that this aged lady did indeed murder her nephew.

   A splendid cast of characters makes for enjoyable reading and also tempts one to seek out other novels by John Newton Chance.

— Reprinted from CADS 17, October 1991. Email Geoff Bradley for subscription information.

Bibliographic Notes:   Under his own name, John Newton Chance (1911-1983) wrote over 120 mystery novels between 1935 and 1989, many of them not published until after his death. Very few of them ever had US editions. Chance also had a number of pen names, one of which was John Lymington, which he used primarily to write science fiction. It’s under that byline that you can find his Wikipedia entry.

WITNESS TO MURDER. MGM, 1954. Barbara Stanwyck, George Sanders, Gary Merrill, Jesse White, Harry Shannon, Juanita Moore, with Claude Akins, Sam Edwards, Burt Mustin. Director of photography: John Alton. Director: Roy Rowland.

   Witness to Murder came out the same year as Rear Window, but this one came first. Both have the same basic premise. The witness in Witness is a single woman living alone in an apartment (Barbara Stanwyck) who is woken up by the wind during the night, goes to close the window and sees is a man (George Sanders) strangling a woman to death in a room across the street.

   She calls the police, but after the laxest investigation you can imagine (Strike One), they find no signs of the murder and think she dreamt or imagined the entire incident.

   She persists, however, arousing the deep-seated enmity of Sanders, who cleverly connives to convince the police that she is in serious need of psychiatric treatment.

   This in spite of the growing attraction between Ms Stanwyck and the police officer in charge of the case (Gary Merrill). An attraction that is never convincing, I’m sorry to say, which is Strike Two against this film. Totally convincing, however, is George Sanders’ usual strong performance as a totally amoral cad of a killer.

   Also on the plus side is the black and white camera work under the direction of cinematographer John Alton. A striking dark windswept street sets the tone from the very beginning, and stark shadows appear in almost every scene thereafter.

   In terms of noir film-making, the slickness of what MGM produced often worked against them, and the relatively few they made are considered far less memorable than those of smaller companies. In this one, though, the photography at least is top notch, indeed, Grade A from beginning to end.

   There is no chemistry between Stanwyck and Merrill, however, and with a story line that’s only moderately compelling, Witness to Murder simply is not in the same league as Rear Window. Not even close.


CAMILLA T. CRESPI – The Trouble with Thin Ice. Simona Griffo #4. HarperCollins, hardcover, 1993; paperback, 1994. iUniverse, trade paperback, July 2003.

   This is the fourth in this series, but it’s my first, and it almost wasn’t that. When I read the description of Griffo is “an ad exec … who loves to cook and solve murders” I nearly wimped out right there. Then I thought, well, maybe it’s the copywriter here who’s an idiot and not the writer. Let’s see.

   Simona and her New York Detective lover (and his 14 year old son) are spending Christmas in Connecticut, where a black friend of theirs is marrying a white man, and the couple is buying one of the town’s old mansions. The lady selling it to them is a member of the tows ruling class, and her announcement of the sale at dinner is greeted with something less than pleasure and acceptance.

   The same night she is drowned in an icy pond, and the bride-to-be is arrested for the murder. Simona’s lover is called away by a family injury, and she and the son are left to soldier one.

   It should be noted that there’s at least one facet of the book of which I heartily approve: a Cast of Characters at the beginning which should be de rigueur for any story with over five characters.

   Praise ends here. The blurb was right — Simona really does love to (*gag*) cook and solve murders. This is a better written version of the nonsense that people like Mary Daheim and Valerie Wolzien perpetrate, and while I recognize that there are those who like such, their rationale remains incomprehensible to me.

   I like my fiction to either be amusing or about people and premises that I can at least temporarily believe in, and neither of these attributes is in the slightest evidence here.

— Reprinted from Ah Sweet Mysteries #13, June 1994.

       The Simona Griffo series —

As by Trella Crespi:
   The Trouble with a Small Raise. Zebra 1991.
   The Trouble with Moonlighting. Zebra 1991.
   The Trouble with Too Much Sun. Zebra 1992.

As by Camilla T. Crespi:
   The Trouble with Thin Ice. Harper 1993.
   The Trouble with Going Home. Harper 1995.
   The Trouble with a Bad Fit. Harper 1996.
   The Trouble with a Hot Summer. Harper 1997.

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