December 2017


RATTLERS. Boxoffice International Pictures, 1976. Sam Chew, Elisabeth Chauvet, Dan Priest, Ron Gold, Al Dunlap, Dan Balentine. Director: John McCauley.

   Schlock and awe is the name of the game in Rattlers, a low budget when-animals-attack movie from the 1970s. And yes, it’s a very 1970s movie. There’s a subplot about feminism and equal rights and some absolutely beautiful shots of vintage (from today’s perspective, that is) cop cars being driven around the California desert. And then there are the snakes. Although there’s nothing particularly 70s about them. To be honest, not all of them are rattlesnakes and it’s not even clear how close the actors got to them.

   But that doesn’t really matter. What matters is that, despite its obviously low budget nature, the film doesn’t come off as an amateur production. I know now it’s trendy to poke fun at these types of films and, on some level, I get it. There are some unintentionally comedic moments to be found in Rattlers. But it’s not aiming to be high art either. It’s meant as escapist entertainment and was part of the zeitgeist. How many when- animals-attack films were there in the mid- to late 1970s? How many were inspired by the success of Spielberg’s Jaws (1975)?

   Sam Chew, who went on to become the narrator of Discovery Channel’s Shark Week, portrays University of California herpetologist Dr. Tom Parkinson. He’s asked by a sheriff in the Mojave Desert to investigate a string of bizarre deaths. This is not the work of a serial killer, however. The culprits in this case couldn’t hold a knife to save their ophidian lives.

   Parkinson teams up with the very single and very feminist war photographer Ann Bradley (Elisabeth Chauvet) to investigate what is causing these snakes to attack humans in such a brutal manner. This leads them both to a local military facility where a megalomaniac officer is conducting illegal research on nerve agents. I think you can put two and two together.

   Laugh at Rattlers if you must, but unlike a lot of contemporary quickie low budget horror films that are little more than joyless gore fests, this one was actually attempting to be socially conscious and to say something.


C. C. WADDELL & CARROLL JOHN DALY – Two-Gun Gerta. Chelsea House, hardcover, 1926. Serialized in four parts in People’s Magazine, October 1 through November 15, 1923. Available as a PDF download from Vintage Library, a possibly censored version.

    THERE isn’t much to say about Yavisa except that it is hot and dirty. But then all the towns in Mexico are hot and dirty; so I’ll put it that Yavisa is a shade hotter and dirtier than anything else along the border.

   That is the authentic voice of Roger Francis ‘Red’ Connors, ex-Hollywood stunt man and cowboy star (“You want to remember that I’d had two years’ experience dare-deviling for the films under Milt Leffingwell. As a matter of fact, I’d worked almost the same stunt in one of my ‘Reckless Rudolph’ pictures, as you’ll recall if you’ve ever saw ‘The Pit of Perdition.’), and all around tough guy come South for adventure and about to be up to his neck in it when he encounters the beautiful and fiery green eyed hellion, ranch owner Gerta O’Bierne: “She had a couple of heavy Colts strapped about her waist; and for all her sweet-sixteen look and her quiet manner, I figured that they weren’t just a bluff. Give her half a chance, and she’d use ’em.“

   He has hardly ridden into Yavisa when he spies beautiful Gerta pinned by local bandit and mustache twirler Colonel Manuel Esteban, old Crooked Mouth: “Half Mexican and half something else, I took him to be, but all murder. He looked like the bad man in the movies, only more real. A yellow, splotchy face under his broad-brimmed sombrero, with eyes as cold and deadly as a rattlesnake’s, and a cruel, crooked mouth that ran halfway up his cheek on one side as the result of an old knife scar.”

   In short order Red has saved Gerta and is hired as foreman on her ranch, but it is hardly smooth sailing from there, as soon Gerta is kidnapped, and even once he rescues her Red has to face her jealousy over saloon girl Rosita.

    But with the help of his horse, “El Flivver!…EL Hennery Ford! The devil caballo!” and his Colt .45 automatic, Red is a match for just about anything the Old West or Old Mexico can throw at him save perhaps Gerta.

    Cannon to right of me; cannon to left of me. I couldn’t go back, and I couldn’t go forward. Looked like I was ketched, eh, what?

   But it takes more than a squeeze of that sort to decompose Red Connors:

    “Hold fast!” I barked like a Amsterdam Avenue conductor to this pillowsham I was loaded with.

   Then I flings myself with her over the balcony railing, and hangs by one hand. Henry Ford is just underneath me, his back about two inches from my dangling toes.

    “Whoa, Henry!” I says, and he stands like a rock.

   Then I let go, and lands pretty as you please square in the saddle, with the lady jolted but unhurt still in the hollow of my arm. Another second, and we was streaking it for the archway and the great, open spaces.

    Bang! A red-hot stripe flicks along the side of my neck, and I hears another bullet go zipping past my ear.

   Red, of course, gets the girl and the horse, and at one point has a two way conversation with Henry Ford the likes of which you never encountered in Zane Grey, and it is all insane and mad fun written in the indomitable style of the much maligned Carroll John Daly, who for my money is one of the most sheerly entertaining bad writers to ever hunt and peck deathless prose onto the written page.

   Exactly what C. C. Waddell contributes is hard to guess, because Two-Gun Gerta reads like pure Daly, and Red Connors, like Three Gun Terry Mack, is just a rehearsal for the urban gunfighter/private eye Race Williams soon to emerge from Daly’s white hot imagination.

   It is pure pulp, and Red, Henry Ford, and Gerta are all well worth meeting: ”She’d been heaven and hell. But through it all, she’d been Gerta. And there wasn’t nobody like her.”

   There “wasn’t nobody” like Daly either, or this B Western of a two fisted adventure novel out of Tom Mix by way of Mickey Spillane.

Note: This book is important to the development of the hard-boiled genre for three reasons. Most obviously it is an early work of Carroll John Daly, who, whatever your feelings about his work, is the onlie beggetor (to borrow a Kiplingesque term from O. F. Snelling), of the modern hard-boiled private eye.

   Next, historically this book is further evidence of the ties between the Western and the hard-boiled school of writing where the former genre’s penchant for colorful language, fast action, and smart independent noble heroes with guns was transplanted to the Urban canyons of the Big City, while the quieter pleasures of the detective novel were supplanted by gangsters, floozies, femme fatales, gunmen, gamblers, crooked politicians, and corrupt cops.

   Hammett and Chandler both touch on distinctly Western settings at least once each in their work, and Gardner actually wrote mysteries with Western settings, while Black Mask as often as not included one Western in many issues..

   Finally, Red Connors is only a breath away from Daly’s first two private eyes, Three Gun Terry Mack and Race Williams. Hard going as this book may be for some readers, it is historically important to the genre.


BACK DOOR TO HELL. Lippert Pictures / 20th Century Fox, 1964. Jimmie Rodgers, Jack Nicholson, John Hackett, Annabelle Huggins, Conrad Maga, Johnny Monteiro. Director: Monte Hellman.

   For a low-budget combat film that doesn’t have a particularly compelling plot, Back Door to Hell is nevertheless worth a look. Directed by auteur Monte Hellman, the movie features a young Jack Nicholson in a starring role as one of three soldiers sent to the World War II-era Philippines for a reconnaissance mission.

   Nicholson, along with popular music singer Jimmie Rodgers and actor John Hackett, portray a diverse trio forged in fear as much as in valor. The three soldiers team up with a war weary Filipino guerrilla leader named Paco in a quest to free captives from the Japanese occupying forces. They also go on a daring mission to radio the American forces vital intelligence necessary to prepare for the forthcoming battle against the Japanese.

   Back Door to Hell, which was filmed on location in the Philippines, was made on a rather modest budget. And it shows. But with Hellman at the helm, it’s a far more stylish product than his mentor Roger Corman’s 1960 film Ski Troop Attack (reviewed here ).

   Indeed, there are some sequences that reminded me quite a bit of Anthony Mann’s work with James Stewart in the Western genre. In 1964, Hellman was a little known Hollywood director without a cult following. But that was all to change in the years ahead with the release of Ride the Whirlwind (released on television in 1968) and Two-Lane Blacktop (1971). As for Jack Nicholson, he went on to a pretty good career as well.

LESLIE CHARTERIS “The National Debt.” Simon Templar “The Saint.” Novella. First published as a non-Saint story in The Thriller, UK, 06 April 1929, as “The Secret of Beacon Inn.” Reprinted in All Star Detective Stories, US, March 1931. Rewritten and collected as a Saint story in the book Alias the Saint (Hodder & Stoughton, UK, hardcover, May 1931) and in the US as part of the larger compilation Wanted for Murder by the Doubleday Crime Club in 1931. Reprinted many times in several collections and formats. TV adaptation: As “The Crime of the Century,” The Saint, starring Roger Moore (Season 3, Episode 22; 1965.)

   The history of The Saint over the years is a highly complicated one, and if any of the information above is incorrect, please set me straight. I read this particular story in a paperback entitled Alias the Saint published by Charter in the 1980s, I believe, but as an overall collection, it contains only two of the three stories originally published under that title in the UK in 1931.

   That this was not originally a Saint story, but was cobbled into one when the character proved to be so popular in other stories, helps explains why the Saint spends quite a bit of his tine doing his crime-solving duties under the name of Ramses Smith, as the leading character was so named in the Thriller version.

   Specifics of how he gets onto the trail of a trio of miscreants is not gone into. Suffice it here to say that the three have grandiose plans of some kind, but definitely criminous. To that end they have forced a young female chemist to work on their project with them. How? By drugging her with a doped cigarette, then killing a detective from Scotland Yard and making her believe she did it.

   Enter the Saint. He barges into the inn of the original title where the villains have set up a laboratory for the kidnapped girl to work in. Proving that the direct approach works, and delightfully so, Templar drives up, and improvising as he goes, declares that he’s working for Scotland Yard and if they don’t serve him a meal, he will arrest them all and take them in.

   This is not a whodunit by any means. For the Saint it’s only a matter of “what are they up to?” Before the story ends, he has found out, escaped from a cellar room filled with a deadly gas, and (of course) rescued the girl, all in Leslie Charteris’s usual breezy fashion, glossing over messy details as he goes. The story’s so much fun to read, though, that only nitpickers like me would even bring them up.


MARCIA MULLER – Till the Butchers Cut Him Down. Sharon McCone #15. Mysterious Press, hardcover, 1994; paperback, 1995.

   I was rooting for Wolf in the Shadows to win an Edgar because I think Muller is long overdue for awards recognition, even though I didn’t think it was one of the stronger in the series. When you look at writers with as many as 15 books about the same character, though, few have maintained her quality of output.

   Sharon has made one of the biggest decisions of her life, and decided to leave All Souls Legal Cooperative and strike out on her own as a private investigator. Not completely, though — her office is still in the same building among her old friends. Another old acquaintance, this one from her Berkley daya, becomes hre first client. Once a dealer in dope, exam papers, false ID’s and other such needed college paraphernalia, now he is a corporate turnaround specialist worth millions. He thinks someone is trying to kill him and ruin his business, and he wants Sharon to find out why.

   As is so often the case, the explanation for the present lies buried in the past, and she finds herself going back in time to Nevada and steel-town Pennsylvania in her quest. And there is always her enigmatic lover, Hy, and the question she has about his past and their future.

   I think Muller has returned to her old form here. It’s a “formula” hard-boiled PI tale, but enhanced by the continued growth and evolution of McCone as a character, and by Muller’s straightforward and very effective storytelling. I continue to think that Sharon McCone is one of the best realized protagonists in detective fiction, and that Muller is one of the best and most consistent practitioners of her craft.

— Reprinted from Ah Sweet Mysteries #14, August 1994.

BARBARA D’AMATO – The Hands of Healing Murder. Dr. Garrett DeGraaf #1. Charter, paperback original, 1980.

   It has to be quite a challenge for a mystery writer to write a locked room mystery, and to write one as your very first one, that must be a double challenge indeed. (I base this statement from observation only, not on experience!) After writing this first adventure of Dr. Garrett DeGraaf in crime-solving, author Barbara D’Amato wrote but one other, that being The Eyes on Utopia Murder (Charter, 1981).

   She then disappeared from the scene for while, with no other mysteries until Hardball came out from Scribner in 1990, the first of her reporter Cat Marsala series, and one for which I am sure she is far better known.

   I have not read the second DeGraaf book — I bought this when it was new, and it has taken me this long to read the first one! — but I do not believe that it was also a locked room mystery. Dead in Hands is a doctor in his own library, killed by a scalpel in his neck while eight guests, two foursomes, were playing duplicate bridge in the other side of the room. The chair in which he was sitting was partially obstructed from view by a bookcase, so the murder was not seen — but it does not seem possible that the murderer was not. No one else entered the room (fact) but the fingerprints on the murder weapon match no one who was in the room.

   There are no secret panels or places for anyone else to hide. It’s quite a puzzle, indeed. The dead man was a perfectionist and largely disliked by all, so there is no shortage of suspects. This is as pure a detective puzzle that I’ve read in some time that wasn’t written in the 1920s or 30s.

   A couple of things stand out. First, the observation that in real life, killers in general do not want to create locked room mysteries. If one occurs, two questions have to be asked: why as well as how?

   The second thing that caught my attention is how familiar the author had to be with both (a) hospital procedures and (b) the classification of fingerprints. In terms of being described well, both are top notch. The solution is a bit far-fetched, but otherwise extremely well prepared for. A bit awkward is the narration told by the police officer in the case, marred by his having to fill in the details that DeGraaf tells him about later, after the latter has gone off on his own.

   There is also a major theme to the story, one consisting of the question of how society should best make use of limited medical resources — how long should patients be kept alive who likely to die anyway — one that you can hardly expect to be solved in the pages of a mystery novel, nor of course is it. Overall I have a feeling that the story will be a little dry for most readers, but personally, I enjoyed this one. For a first novel, quite ably done.


THE CAT AND THE CANARY. Paramount Pictures, 1939. Bob Hope, Paulette Goddard, John Beal, Douglass Montgomery, Gale Sondergaard, Elizabeth Patterson. Director: Elliott Nugent.

   The thing about a lot of locked room mysteries, particularly the kind that take place in spooky old houses out in the middle of nowhere, is that the resolution is often rushed and not nearly as thrilling as everything that came before it. That’s definitely the case in The Cat and the Canary, this 1939 horror comedy starring Bob Hope and Paulette Goddard. The real thrill in this fun-filled Paramount release begins with Hope’s arrival on screen and never really lets up until the very end, when there needs to be some form of resolution to effectively put an end to the proceedings.

   But what proceedings! Adapted from the theatrical play of the same name, The Cat and the Canary features Bob Hope at his wisecracking, self-deprecating prime. He portrays Wally Campbell, an actor and radio host who is summoned to the Louisiana bayou house of a deceased relative by the name of Cyrus Norman.

   Wally, along with a host of other surviving relatives, are to stay in the old mansion for the night and listen to an attorney, Mr. Crosby (George Zucco) read the old man’s will. As it turns out, Norman has left the house to the dashing Joyce Norman (Paulette Goddard). But there’s a catch: if Joyce is to die or go mad, she will lose her inheritance.

   Enter the Cat, an escaped mental patient who seems to be lurking about in the area. It also doesn’t take Wally long to realize that the condition of the will is a perverse incentive for someone – another heir perhaps – to murder Joyce. Or at least drive her mad.

   And that’s exactly what starts to happen when Joyce begins to see Mr. Crosby disappear from her room. It’s up to Wally to save Joyce. The question is: from whom or from what? And who is the Cat? Finding out is a large part of the fun in this admittedly goofy but entertaining film that, despite being over seventy years old and filled with what would become horror film clichés, still feels exceedingly fresh.

  THE MALTESE FALCON. Warner Bros Vitaphone Talking Picture, 1931. Bebe Daniels (Ruth Wonderly), Ricardo Cortez (Sam Spade), Dudley Digges (Casper Gutman), Una Merkel (Effie Perine), Robert Elliott (Detective Lt. Dundy), Thelma Todd (Iva Archer), Otto Matieson (Dr. Joel Cairo), Walter Long (Miles Archer), Dwight Frye (Wilmer Cook). Based on the novel by Dashiell Hammett. Director: Roy Del Ruth.

   It’s taken me a long time to get around to seeing this one, but I’m glad I did. I’m going to assume everyone reading this knows the story, either by reading the book or watching the 1941 version, the one directed by John Huston and with Humphrey Bogart in his never to be forgotten role of private eye Sam Spade. Or both, of course.

   This first adaptation, as I’ve just discovered, follows the story line of the book just about as closely as the Bogart one. In my opinion, though, while very good, if not excellent, it isn’t nearly as good as the later one, in spite of the semi-risque bits it gets away with, having been made before the Movie Code went into effect. (I suspect that I’m not saying anything new here.)

   To some great extent, I imagine, how well you like this version depends quite a bit on how well you like Ricardo Cortez in the role. I didn’t, but on the other hand, who could compare with Humphrey Bogart’s performance, in a part made just for him?

   I don’t know what the critical or audience reception to this movie was at the time, but it didn’t seem to have any lasting effect on how detective stories in novel form were adapted to the screen. It took another ten years before film versions of other mysteries didn’t have to have goofy cops or funny detective sidekicks tagging along for comedy relief. There’s none of that in this 1931 movie, but except for a few exceptions, such Warner Brothers’ output of gritty crime and racketeer dramas, that’s a simple idea that didn’t catch on.



MARLOWE. ABC / Touchstone, TV Movie/pilot, 2007. Jason O’Mara (Philip Marlowe), Adam Goldberg, Clayton Rohner, Jamie Ray Newman, Amanda Righetti, Lisa LoCicero, Marcus A. Ferraz. Teleplay by Greg Pruss & Carol Wolper, based on the character created by Raymond Chandler. Directed by Rob Bowman.

   â€œLet her go, she’s trouble.”
   â€œTrouble is my business.”

   Slick pilot for a series that never developed, Marlowe features Jason O’Mara (Agents of SHIELD) as Raymond Chandler’s metaphor-and-simile-laden private eye, a good man in the mean streets of 21rst Century Los Angeles, and O’Mara’s tough, human, wounded Marlowe is easily the best thing about this well-intentioned updating of the classic character.

   Marlowe is following a playboy his client suspects is having an affair with his wife when he hears a scream and Traci Faye (Jamie Ray Newman) comes running from the man’s home. Inside Marlowe finds the man he is following dead.

   When the police arrive, in the person of Marlowe’s cop pal Frank Olmer (Adam Goldberg), they arrest Tracy for the murder, and when they have to let her go, she comes to Marlowe for help, thus the little dialogue above between Marlowe and his sexy mothering secretary Jessica (Amanda Righetti).

   The tricky thing about LA is the lies can feel like the truth, and the truth feel like a lie.

   Before long Marlowe has stumbled on a crooked real estate development deal, taken a dive into that famous “black pool” thanks to psychotic Zack Battas (Marcus A. Ferraz), and ended up locked in his car with no way out in the middle of oncoming freeway traffic. He also resists seduction by his client’s wife (Lisa LoCicero) and does not resist Tracy before he uncovers the lies and deceptions leading to the real killer.

   There are some good lines that show the people involved at least know their Chandler:

    “You think she’s not my type? What is it, the clothes?” Marlowe asks a bar owner friend about one of Traci’s girlfriends.
    “That and your general disdain for women who can’t start a sentence without using the word ‘I’.”

   I’m divided on this one. On the one hand O’Mara makes for an attractive and human Marlowe — there is one very good scene between he and the actress playing his client where he loses his temper and in doing so sees the frightened little girl under the seductive exterior — and the plot is actually much more complex than usual for television in keeping with Chandler.

   On the other Marlowe is very much a fish out of water in 21st Century LA, and no one but O’Mara seems to be doing much more than going through the motions, though Newman has that one good scene, and Adam Goldberg is good as his world weary cop buddy. At times everything seems too bright and fresh and new to be classic Marlowe (his office is more 77 Sunset Strip than the Bradbury Building and his secretary more Velda from Mike Hammer than anything in Chandler).

   Over all I recommend it with reservations, if only for O’Mara’s humane Marlowe, it is one of those what might have been situations, where you can see it being very good or going very wrong fast.

   The awful thing about the truth is having to tell it to somebody.

   That’s not half bad, which is pretty much what you can say for this pilot, and considering, that is more of a recommendation than it may sound.


JAMES RONALD. This Way Out. Lippincott, US, hardcover, 1939. Popular Library #389, US, paperback, 1951. First published in the UK by Rich & Cowan, hardcover, July 1938. Film: Universal, 1944, as The Suspect.

THE SUSPECT. Universal, 1944. Charles Laughton, Ella Raines, Henry Daniell, Rosalind Ivan, Stanley Ridges. Screenplay by Bertram Millhauser, based on the novel This Way Out, by James Ronald. Directed by Robert Siodmak.

   Yet another tale of murder for love and freedom, memorably done as book and movie.

   The novel opens with Philip Marshall, middle-aged and unhappily mired in a marriage that has degenerated into constant nagging. Leaving work one evening, he meets a troubled young woman, shows her a bit of kindness, and they begin a relationship that slowly turns into love.

   When Philip asks his wife for a divorce, she sees it as just another chance to hurt him, but before she can turn the screws… well I’m not giving anything away to say that she ends up quite dead, opening Philip’s way for marriage and happiness, marred only by a persistent Scotland Yard detective who finds the death just a bit too convenient, and a nasty acquaintance who sees a chance for blackmail.

   This is ground well-trod by other writers, but author James Ronald is writing about something else. This Way Out is spiced with some poignant and pleasing observations about love, loneliness and responsibility. In fact, responsibility becomes a recurring motif in the tale, as Marshall weighs his obligations to his wife, his lover, his son, and ultimately to humanity as a whole, and the result is a book of surprising emotional resonance.

   Universal did well by this, assigning the screenplay to Bertram Millhauser of the Sherlock Holmes series, probably to give it that authentic Hollywood London feel, and putting at the helm Robert Siodmak, who two years later would define film noir with The Killers.

   Nor did they scrimp with the actors, starting with Charles Laughton playing the meek and decent Marshall with his customary self-effacing brilliance. Ella Raines projects a spirited innocence, and Rosalind Ivans offers yet another of her bitchy wife portrayals, this time with a nastier edge than usual, even for her.

   Stanley Ridges never really convinced me as the man from Scotland Yard; he doesn’t quite capture the polite cunning of John Williams in Dial M for Murder, and he makes no attempt at an English accent. But Henry Daniell casts off his usual puritanical demeanor and plays the blackmailing drunkard with surprising relish.

   Daniell was usually cast as the bad guy in films like Jane Eyre, Camille and The Great Dictator, and he specialized in the puritanical type; even in neutral parts, he was generally a party-pooper, like the judge in Les Girls, and the doctor who gives the bad news to Jake Barnes in The Sun Also Rises.

   Here though, he’s the self-indulgent rotter who sees a steady meal ticket in his neighbor Charles Laughton, and he plays the part with obvious glee, as if glad for a chance to kick up his heels for a change.

   One important difference between film and book intrigues me: In the book we see Philip kill his wife. In the film, however, we simply learn that she’s dead—allegedly after striking her head in a fall down the stairs — and the heavy cane Philip usually carries around is missing. Scotland Yard suspects foul play and so do we, but in a visual medium like the movies, the omission is telling.

   I will only add that both book and movie leave us with a very satisfying twist ending, and I recommend them highly.

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