October 2018

PETER DAWSON – Dead Man Pass. Dodd Mead, hardcover, November 1954. Bantam #1396, paperback, December 1955. Reprinted by Bantam several times. Serialized before book publication in The Saturday Evening Post from June 26 through August 7, 1954.

   As is well known now, but perhaps not when his book was first published, western writer Peter Dawson was the pen name of Jonathan Glidden, who was the brother of Frederick Glidden, who also wrote westerns, but under the pen name of Luke Short. Between them they must have written a good percentage of the western fiction produced in the country in the 30s through the 60s.

   And not all of it was about the usual cowboys and Indians, cattle drives, grasslands and gunfighters. In Dead Man Pass, Dawson changes the setting to mountain country, in the winter no less, in which the struggle to build a train tunnel through a mountain is the focus.

   Stiffed on the price of his horses by the managing head of the company charged with completing the task, a young fellow named Bill Tenn decides to make an offer to owner of the company: to make the work go faster, bring an engine over the mountain through Dead Man Pass by a huge sled pulled by his horses.

   The owner takes him up on it, but before he can begin, Tenn is convicted of a murder he didn’t commit. There are other complications, including a thwarted romance and a lode of silver that’s been found in the tunnel but being kept a secret.

   There are plenty of plot lines to this well-constructed story, in other words, and it’s told in a comfortable and relaxed fashion. For me, though, there weren’t enough real twists to the tale, perhaps only one that I partially did not see coming. Maybe I’ve read too many westerns over the years for there to be many twists left!


LAURIE R. KING – To Play the Fool. Kate Martinelli & Al Hawkin #2. St. Martin’s, hardcover, 1995. Bantam Crimeline, paperback, 1996.

   King won a First Novel Edgar for A Grave Talent, which I thought was very good. She followed that with The Beekeeper’s Apprentice, [the first of her Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes mysteries], and now Martinelli and Hawkin are back.

   [Back] finally, after the traumatic events of the first book were followed offstage by another case almost as bad. Now they are investigating the murder of a homeless person, and smack in the middle of the case is a charismatic and enigmatic man known only as “Brother Erasmus.” He is something of a Holy Fool who speaks only in quotations, ad he is at once their strongest hope and biggest barrier to solving the case. Before all the puzzles are solved, someone else has died.

   I like King’s writing very much. She is adept at characterization and dialogue, and it has a real sense of San Francisco that she imparts without overdoing it. At the center of this book as with her first is a superbly drawn character — here it’s the fool, Erasmus. The plot, and Matrinelli, revolve around him. Hawkin is there but less present in this one. Martinelli is a sympathetic human being, and her relationship with her lesbian lover is very well handled.

   While I enjoyed the book a great deal as I read it, I think it has two problems, one of them major. The first is the large amount of material about the Fool’s involvement is worked into the book — and understanding of it is central to the plot, but if the reader doesn’t find it interesting, it will be a real stumbling block. It wasn’t for me, but I think it might be for many.

   The second, however, is an eventual solution to the crime that I found unlikely to the point of being unbelievable, which went a long way toward negating my earlier enjoyment. Granted, the mystery of the crime was less important to what King was attempting than was the mystery of Erasmus, but it was still a downer.

— Reprinted from Ah Sweet Mysteries #17, January 1995.

        The Kate Martinelli mysteries —

A Grave Talent (1993)
To Play the Fool (1995)
With Child (1996)
Night Work (2000)
The Art of Detection (2006)

RICHARD GALLAGHER – Cannon: Murder by Gemini. Cannon #1. Lancer 74783, paperback original; 1st printing, 1971.

   As I imagine everyone reading this already knows, Cannon was a TV series that lasted for five years on CBS, from 1971 to 1976. Playing Frank Cannon was a decidedly rotund movie, radio and TV actor by the name of William Conrad, and it’s my opinion that much of the success the series had was due to his down-to-earth but still somehow debonair personality. It wasn’t his good looks, that’s for sure.

   It’s difficult to describe on screen charisma, and the preceding sentence is the best I’ve been able to do. Richard Gallagher seems to have had the same problem in writing this book, an early novelization of the series. Forced to use only words on the page to flesh out Frank Cannon, author Richard Gallagher makes an occasional reference to his weight, but little more. The Frank Cannon of the book could be any fictional ex-cop turned PI, of which there are hundreds.

   I also found it a bit curious that instead of L.A., Cannon’s usual place of business, almost all of the book takes place in Wyoming, in Grand Teton territory.

   The puzzle presented by the story itself is based on an interesting question. If a murder is committed by one of two identical twins, but an eye witness can’t identify in a lineup which one it is, the police have no choice to let both of them go free, including the one who is actually guilty. What else can they do?

   Cannon is called on to investigate, but he quickly finds himself stumped as well. Most of the book is filled with local lore and three increasingly narrow escapes from attempts on his life.

   It might have made for good television — though I don’t believe this is based on an actual episode — but in terms of a book to read, there’s not a lot of meat in this particular sandwich.


THE DOUBLE LIFE OF HENRY PHYFE. ABC / Luther Davis Productions / Filmways TV Presentation. January 13, 1966 – September 1, 1966. Cast: Red Buttons as Henry Phyfe, Fred Clark as Gerald B. Hannahan, Parley Baer as Mr. Hambles, Zeme North as Judy and Marge Redmond as Florence. Created by Luther Davis. Developed and Executive Produced by David Levy.

   After turning down GET SMART the ABC executives had to watch it become an instant Top Ten hit and the highest rated new series of 1965-66 season (“Broadcasting” November 15, 1965). Adding to their mistake, the ABC executives decided to rush THE DOUBLE LIFE OF HENRY PHYFE on to the air as the network continued to attempt (and fail) to cash in on the James Bond craze.

   January 1966 was an important time in television history. A desperate ABC invented the “second season” and the beginning of the end to a stable TV schedule. The ABC ad in “Broadcasting” (January 10, 1966) promoted the new idea, “Nothing like this ever happened in television before. An exciting new season starting right now in January! In the next two weeks alone, four completely new shows! Shows so great they couldn’t wait till fall.”

   The four chosen were THE DOUBLE LIFE OF HENRY PHYFE, THE BARON (British ITV), BLUE LIGHT (reviewed here ), and two nights of the immediate hit TV classic BATMAN. Not only were these four series introduced in TV’s first official “second season,” the ad also promoted that the new series would be in color as ABC began to switch over from black and white television.

   Ratings were great for all four series in the first week, but that would last only for BATMAN (“Broadcasting” January 17,1966). HENRY PHYFE would quickly fall to last in its time slot on Thursday at 8:30-9pm. CBS’s MY THREE SONS won the time slot and NBC’s LAREDO finished second.

   Below is the premise-explaining theme done by Vic Mizzy (ADDAMS FAMILY) and an opening scene showing how Hannahan would every week convinced patriotic Henry to accept another dangerous mission for the American government.

   A top agent for the bad guys, U31 has been killed and the good guys are keeping it a secret. Henry Phyfe is a double for U31 but in looks only. U31 was an expert in everything while accountant Henry is an expert in none. Adding to Henry’s problems, he can’t tell anyone about his double life, not even the woman he hopes to marry or her disapproving Mother or his boss.

WHATEVER HAPPENED TO YESTERDAY (1/27/1966) Written by Ben Starr – Directed by Leslie H. Martinson – Produced by Luther Davis- GUEST CAST: Jerry Fujikawa and Lloyd Kino. *** Henry tries to get his girlfriend’s Mother to like him by throwing her a birthday party. However Hannahan needs Henry to pose as U31 in Japan on the same day.

   The laugh track liked this episode more than I did. This was the third episode to air, and the series was more a family sitcom than spy comedy – that was not a good thing.

   Ben Starr whose writing career spanned from BACHELOR FATHER to ALL IN THE FAMILY turned in a profession old school style sitcom script complete with antique plot and jokes pre-dating TV.

   On the plus side there was some good comedic chemistry between Oscar winner (Best Supporting Actor for SAYONARA) Red Buttons and successful character actor Fred Clark (GEORGE BURNS AND GRACIE ALLEN SHOW).

   The family sitcom spy comedy was ABC’s idea. In “Smart Money” (“Time” October 15, 1965) Mel Brooks discussed ABC’s demands for GET SMART. ABC executives called Buck Henry and Mel Brooks proposal “un-American” and wanted a “lovable dog to give the show more heart.” According to Brooks, ABC wanted Max to “come home to his Mother and explain everything.” Brooks objected and wanted to do a crazy comedy that did not include a family. (Source: Wikipedia)

   HENRY PHYFE proved Brooks was right. Because as HENRY PHYFE was doing ancient family sitcom jokes, GET SMART was a top ten hit for NBC as it satirized James Bond and the very popular at the time spy genre.

   Episode seven hinted at the problems the show was having with the writing and the lack of development time for HENRY PHYFE. Pointless Fact: The “&” used in writers’ credits mean a writing team.

THE UNFRIENDLY PERSUSION. (2/24/1966) Teleplay by Phil Leslie and William Raynor & Myles Wilder. Story by Charles Marion & Monroe Manning. Directed by Leslie H. Martinson. Produced by Luther Davis. GUEST CAST: John Aniston and James Seay. *** Henry is needed to pose as U31 for a meeting of villains. Problem is the meeting will be at a golf course. U31 was a great golfer while Henry has never played. The predictable family co-plot had Henry getting a sick day and then his boss and girlfriend learned he spent the day at the golf course.

   The script was a complete mess – a random collection of old bad gags at times drifting off plot. Even worse was watching the attempt at romance between forty-seven year old Buttons as Henry and his girlfriend Judy. Twenty-eight year old Zeme North played Judy and did what she could with the cliché unbelievable character.

   The production values of HENRY PHYFE were typical of the 50s-60s sitcom. Filming rarely left the studio stage and never the studio lot. The series look, with its static camera and overuse of the master shot wasted the talents of its directors such as Leslie H. Martinson (BRADY BUNCH, MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE) and Howard Morris (ANDY GRIFFITH, DICK VAN DYKE SHOW). The filmed stage play style was not uncommon for the sitcom but was behind the times for a TV comedy such as GET SMART.

   Apparently somewhere along the way not only were the girlfriend and Mother phased out, creator and producer Luther Davis was replaced by Nat Perrin. Perrin got his start writing for Groucho Marx and produced THE RED SKELTON SHOW and THE ADDAMS FAMILY.

   JAILBIRD PHYFE was the thirteenth episode (of seventeen) and showed signs that the series was finding its direction by focusing on the spy comedy.

JAILBIRD PHYFE. (April 7, 1966) Written by Sloan Nibley & Bill Lutz – Directed Howard Morris. Produced by Nat Perrin. GUEST CAST: Henry Corden, Vincent Beak and Jackie Russell. When Hannahan decides to take a vacation both he and Henry looked forward to some free time. But then the Butcher, killer and fan of U31, arrives needing U31 help.

   I liked this one. The shift away from the family sitcom to spy comedy made Henry a stronger and more likable character – no more lying to the girlfriend and others. The humor and story seemed fresher without the dated plots of the family sitcom of the 60s.

   It would be interesting to watch the entire series as it grew and developed over time. GET SMART with the better premise would always have been a better series, but THE DOUBLE LIFE OF HENRY PHYFE could have existed along side GET SMART much like THE MUNSTERS and THE ADDAMS FAMILY did.

   In “Broadcasting” (April 18, 1966) president of Filmways TV Production Al Simon blamed the failure of THE DOUBLE LIFE OF HENRY PHYFE on ABC for rushing it to the air too soon and cancelling it too soon before it could discover what worked and what didn’t. It would not be the last time a cancelled TV series would use that excuse, nor the last time it would be true.


THE MAN WHO COULD CHEAT DEATH. Hammer Films, UK, 195(. Anton Diffring, Hazel Court, Christopher Lee, Francis de Wolff and Arnold Marle. Screenplay by Jimmy Sangster, based on the play The Man in Half Moon Street, by Barre Lyndon. Directed by Terence Fisher.

   The Hammer team at the top of their form, with a superior effort mostly overlooked these days.

   The tale is a familiar one by now, with Anton Diffring as the mysterious doctor who never ages – as long as he can get a gland transplant every ten years. The complications are predictable, but scenarist Sangster runs through them at a brisk trot, and Director Fisher works particularly well here with the photographer and set designer to evoke an atmosphere of lavish horror: all twisting stairways and foggy streets, imparting an air of mystery to Sangster’s straightforward script.

   Anton Diffring anchors the film firmly in Dorian Gray territory with a Hurd-Hatfield-like performance of restrained emotion and glassy countenance. Hazel Court projects sexy intelligence, and Christopher Lee and Francis De Wolff do well in less colorful parts. But the acting honors here go to a lesser-known actor: Arnold Marle, who plays Dr. Ludwig Weiss, the old guy who has been been keeping Anton alive all these years, but is no longer up to the task.

   This character speaks as the conscience of the piece, and Marle does a helluva job. He was an actor in German Cinema from its early days, fled the Nazis as so many did, and carved out a long career on the stage, with frequent jumps to movies & TV. Maybe I’m reading too much into it, but when Dr. Weiss speaks wearily about the folly of sacrificing individuals for an idea, you can feel Marle’s life talking to you.

   It’s a performance and a role that adds depth to a good-looking film, and it lifts The Man Who Could Cheat Death an important notch above the other fine Hammer movies of its time. This is one worth seeing.


PHILIP McCUTCHAN – A Very Big Bang. Simon Shard #2. Hodder & Stoughton, UK, hardcover, 1975. No US edition.

   â€œI have the date, positive.”


   â€œMay fourth.”

   Shard said, “Ten days … fair warning. Well done! Where?”

   There was a curious, almost virgin surprise in Casey’s voice as though he still couldn’t believe it. “The underground,” he said. “London underground —”

   â€œA station?”

   â€œNot a station. A section of track … this is big, Mr Shard, the biggest yet. Four men, no less, to carry the explosives.” There was a pause. “Look, Mr Shard. I’ve a lot to tell. I think we should meet.”

   So opens the second adventure of Chief Superintendent Simon Shard, seconded to the Foreign Office (… tended, ever since the first day of his appointment, both to impress and depress Simon Shard whenever he was called there from the anonymity of his crummy little office among the prostitutes of Seddon’s Way), and the man named Hedge (Hedge could be relied upon to twist and turn in any corner and to contrive his way out; and was ever on his guard to spot any such Hedge-trapping corners before they fully materialised, just in case) he dislikes and hates working for. Shard is a tough cop, married, settled, and efficient, and the man who Hedge turns to when things are rough.

   And things are about to get very rough as Detective Sergeant Tom Casey, a Dublin cop working undercover for Hedge, reveals to Shard when he gets in with an unidentified group of vague Mid-Eastern origins run by a beautiful and dangerous woman (…the olive-skinned girl: she was a good-looker all right, and bad for his immortal soul) and then is killed, castrated and left to bleed to death, before he can tell Shard anything more than what he revealed in a phone call.

   Ten days, something very big, somewhere in the huge complex of the London Underground, and nothing else to go on but a date and four men out of millions.

   Philip McCutchan was a successful British writer of suspense and historical fiction best known here for his Bondian Commander Esmonde Shaw series (continuing well after most of the Bond imitators had moved gone the way of the dinosaur), the WW II Naval Convoy series, the mid-19th Century British navy series about a Hornblower-like officer Halfhyde, and under another name the James Oglivie series about the British Army in 19th Century India. In the mid-seventies as the Bond craze eased up McCutchan moved Shaw onto a series of more fantastic adventures with a science fictional bent along Dr. Palfrey lines and introduced Simon Shard in a more grounded series of espionage related thrillers, beginning with Call for Simon Shard.

   A Very Big Bang is the second of the Shard thrillers, and lives up to the name thriller, as do most of McCutchan’s well-researched novels. He was a sure hand at creating suspense and fast-moving plots with an eye for hair-breadth endings.

   The books are themselves as efficient as Shard, most coming in from sixty to eighty thousand words, old-fashioned satisfying reads, no bloat, no pyrotechnics, just well done and entertaining, this one concluding with a shootout in the London Underground with something much more dangerous than mere high explosives…

   â€œThe plungers plunge, the detonators detonate, the mass becomes critical, all the little neutrons hitting and multiplying, making heat to several millions of degrees centigrade. There is a tremendous explosion — in effect, carried before the train. The rail to roof height of the tunnel is twelve feet six inches. Each car of the train is twelve feet one inch high from rail level to roof — leaving a gap of five inches above and a little beneath also. The width is nine feet eight inches, leaving one foot five inches free on either side. This will provide at least some tamping —”

   Though published in 1975, this one seems more contemporary, thanks to the subject.

   Currently all the Shaw books are available in e-book form and the Shard books are now being released. If you like well-written British thrillers that entertain and keep you turning pages, McCutchan is a good bet, and Simon Shard a good companion to explore them with.

JACK SLADE. Allied Artists/Monogram, 1953. Mark Stevens, Dorothy Malone, Barton MacLane, John Litel, Paul Langton, Harry Shannon, Jim Bannon, Lee Van Cleef. Director: Harold D. Schuster.

   The Jack Slade of this dark and gritty biopic has nothing to do wuth the Cactus Jack Slade played by Kirk Douglas in The Villain, a disaster of a film which David Vineyard reviewed here on this blog not too long ago. There was a real Jack Slade, however, whose life resembles to some small degree the character Mark Stevens portrays in this still mostly fictional adaptation.

   I don’t believe the dark and often broody Mark Stevens was the leading man in very many movies, and his performance in this one is one that needs to grow on you while you’re watching. His portrayal of a man who’s good with a gun and obsessed since early childhood with eliminating as many of the outlaws of the west as he can, a one man instrument of revenge, is riveting. He is, in the end, as much an outlaw as the many that he is killed.

   Unfortunately the script does the film in, trying to cram too much into a 90 minute movie, losing some significant points of continuity and telling more often than showing. Dorothy Malone is marvelous as the young exotic beauty who falls in love with him as soon as her eyes fall on him, but Barton MacLane as Jules Reni, Slade’s constant nemesis, is far too oafish and dim-witted to be believable.

   Lee Van Cleef, at least, in a role far too short, has the sense to back off when he sees Slade draw, saying “That’s fast enough.”

ALISON GORDON – The Dead Pull Hitter. Kate Henry #1. St. Martin’s Press, hardcover, 1989. Onyx, paperback, 1991.

   Kate Henry is a sportswriter covering the fictional Toronto Titans, and just as the team clinches their first playoff spot, both the designated hitter and the team’s star pitcher are both found murdered. Involved are drugs, blackmail and (just maybe) sex.

   Since Alison Gordon previously spent five years covering the real-life Blue Jays, she knows how to write, and this peek inside the locker room seems authentic, smell of sweaty socks and all. The mystery is less convincing, but Kate Henry is a character I’d like to meet again.

–Reprinted from Mystery*File #17, November 1989.

       The Kate Henry series —

The Dead Pull Hitter (1988)
Safe at Home (1990)
Night Game (1992)
Striking Out (1995)
Prairie Hardball (1997)

THE GREAT DIAMOND ROBBERY. MGM, 1953. Red Skelton, Cara Williams, James Whitmore, Kurt Kaznar. Director: Robert Z. Leonard.

   Sort of a quiet, sedate comedy, with Red Skelton playing a simple sort of soul who just happens to work for a diamond company. He is also an orphan, and the people he comes across who claim to be related are really (not surprisingly) a bunch of crooks.

   Read the title again and you will know everything there is to say about the story — except possibly that Cara Williams, who plays the girl who is supposed to be his sister, falls in love with him instead, and — you can finish it up from here. (Spotted in bit parts were Olan Soule and Jack Kruschen, long time radio actors.)

— Reprinted and very slightly revised from Movie.File.8, January 1990.


ANGKOR. Mapel Pictures, 1935. Also released as FORRBIDDEN ADVENTURE, FORBIDDEN ADVENTURE IN ANGKOR, THE GORILLA WOMAN and PRIVATE LIFE OF INGAGI (!). With Wilfred Lucas and Fred Humes. Directed, at various times, by L.C. Cook and George Merrick. No writer credited.

   Another oddity, made up of some amazing film shot in 1912, the first motion picture record of the magnificent ruins at Angkor, when it was still a vine-covered ruin, before it became a tourist site — but

   With something added….

   Dwain Esper, the auteur of REEFER MADNESS, somehow got the original footage and hired George Merrick to shoot scenes with actors in false beards to match the original (more or less) and a half-dozen Hollywood hookers to run around topless as “native bearers.” Throw in a guy in a gorilla suit, and you got Cinematic Treasure.

   Like many low-budget cobble-jobs, ANGKOR is held together (sort of) by voice-over narration, here detailing a story about intrepid explorers in search of a cult of ape-worshipers, supposedly for the story behind the fall of the Khmer civilization. Okay.

   So we get the usual jungle-documentary stuff, silent and projected at the wrong speed, while the narrator talks about the harrowing trek, and invites us to watch cute fuzzy animal antics and a few staged scenes of dire peril. My favorite is a guy struggling for his life with a 12’ python (while, presumably, the cameraman looks on with clinical disinterest) until his fellow-bwana shows up, sees his pardner wrapped in the serpent’s coils, and shoots the snake from twenty feet away without injuring the struggling man he’s wrapped around – which if nothing else, shows a confidence in one’s marksmanship amounting to arrogance.

   At various places in the trek we break for scenes of the stand-ins, standing in as is their wont, in front of back-projected footage. Then we get to the native village where the plot thickens a bit. A sinister priest of an ape-worshiping sect (a monkey-monk?) warns the men not to help the white interlopers, and stalks off, leaving our stand-in heroes with the pleasant alternative of hiring the buxom ladies of the tribe as native barers.

   Esper got into trouble with the Breen Office at this point, and hit on the happy (?) solution of superimposing tree branches into the foreground whenever the ladies are on screen. This was passed by the censors, whereupon he showed the original version every chance he got. Stout fellow, that.

   Not content with mere fake-documentary sleaze, Esper then hired a guy in a gorilla suit to strut around trying to pick up jungle babes, who swoon over him – a theme first exploited in the notorious INGAGI (1930) which was still being shown to white-supremacist groups into the 1960s.

   I take a step back here, and muse on the vagaries of cinematic destiny, which transmutes an historic film record into racist titillation. We will remark on the ironies of fate and pass on.

   The result is a unique combination of spectacle and sleaze, a very bad film made remarkable by its own audacity, and while I wouldn’t recommend ANGKOR to anyone of any critical capacity at all, I have to say I enjoyed it more than I should admit.

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