April 2019

DEVIL IN A BLUE DRESS. TriStar Pictures, 1995. Denzel Washington (Easy Rawlins), Tom Sizemore, Jennifer Beals, Don Cheadle (Mouse), Maury Chaykin, Terry Kinney, Mel Winkler. Based on the book by Walter Mosley (also Associate Producer). Screenplay & director: Carl Franklin.

   When a young black man named Easy Rawlins, an unemployed aircraft worker who owns his own home in 1948 Los Angeles, is offered a job to find Daphne Monet, a white woman who is known to hang out in the juke joints in the city, he jumps at the chance. It turns out that Daphne is/was the girl friend of the man who has just dropped out of the current race for mayor, and when the girl who helps Easy track her down is murdered, it’s Easy whom the cops will pin her death on, unless he can do something about it.

   I’ve read some of the Easy Rawlins books, but not this one, which was the first. I have read that Denzell Washington was not Walter Mosley’s first choice to play Easy Rawlins, but this is not the first time I think an author was wrong as to whom would be best play his own character. Of course, I think Washington can play almost any character and make it work, and to me, he certainly does here.

   I loved the way director Carl Franklin recreated sections of late 1940s L.A. so perfectly, not to mention the lives led by the people who lived there, including their relationship with the police force, deeply infested with racism if not out and out malice. The era may also have been Raymond Chandler territory, but this movie takes us into locales that Chandler never was or could have been.

   As for Easy’s homicidal friend and sidekick Mouse (Don Cheadle), the way he is introduced could have been seriously improved upon. He came on the scene way too quickly (and conveniently) for me.

   In general critics seemed to have liked the movie, but it did not do well at the box office, and chances at a followup film seem awfully slim. I can think of a couple of reasons for this. First of all, it’s a complicated story, and by the two-thirds mark, it’s easy not to remember who all of the characters are. Secondly and honestly, I don’t think that audiences even as recently as 1995 were ready to see a movie in which one of the driving components was racism in 1948 L.A.

BATMAN “The Jungle Cat-Queen.” Story: Edmond Hamilton (uncredited). Artwork: Dick Sprang & Charles Paris. First published in Detective Comics #211, 1954. [Also in this issue: Roy Raymond: “Menace from Outer Space!” // Captain Compass: “The World’s Deadliest Cargo!” // Mysto: “The Forbidden Trick!”] Reprinted in The Greatest Batman Stories Ever Told, edited by Mike Gold (uncredited), DC Comics, trade paperback, 1988.

   Batman and Robin’s adversary in this story is Catwoman, a/k/a Selina Kyle, a costumed burglar who has had a special quasi-romantic relationship with Batman for many years over many different identities, first appearing in Batman #1. As the “Jungle Cat-Queen,” she and her cat plane are followed soon after her latest robbery by Batman and Robin in their Batplane to her hideaway on an almost isolated jungle island somewhere in the tropics.

   The island is not quite abandoned, however. A pair of thuggish men are operating what they call a jewel mine there, and they may (or may not) somehow be in cahoots with Catwoman.

   In 1954 comic books were far more talkier than they are now, as I hope one of the images added to this review will show. You could, in fact, learn to read from comic books, and I speak from experience.

   The ambivalent relationship between Batman and Catwoman is fully demonstrated in this story. When Batman is sent over a waterfall and presumably to his death, it is Catwoman who makes sure he has on him a silken cord and his emergency knife blade.

   Unfortunately this was the final appearance of Catwoman for many years. Apparently the Comic Code came into effect soon after this issue came out, and portrayals of female criminals were somehow prohibited. Her next appearance didn’t happen until some twelve years later.

   The story itself is kind of silly, but back in 1954, I wouldn’t have minded a bit. And to tell you the truth, I didn’t mind earlier today, either.

SPLIT SECOND. RKO Radio Pictures, 1953. Stephen McNally, Alexis Smith, Jan Sterling, Keith Andes, Arthur Hunnicutt, Paul Kelly, Robert Paige, Richard Egan, Frank de Kova. Director: Dick Powell.

   A large ensemble cast portraying a group of strangers, mostly, being held captive in a Nevada ghost town by am escaped killer (Stephen McNally) and his two confederates, one of whom (Paul Kelly) is seriously wounded. Others include a journalist (Keith Andes) and the female hoofer (Jan Sterling) he had picked up earlier as a hitchhiker. Also trapped are a woman (Alexis Smith) doing in Nevada what women with unwanted husbands did in the 50s, along with her current male companion (Robert Paige).

   Adding considerable stress to the situation is the fact that a nuclear bomb test is scheduled to take place at six the next morning, and they are less than a mile from ground zero.

   The movie has a good many fans, but unfortunately I found it far less intense and suspenseful than I was supposed to, even with the time of the blast moved up an hour. As the crazed murderer in charge of his small gang, Stephen McNally is over the top when it comes to the “crazed” part of his role, while Keith Andes holds back a little too much. Perfect in her role, however, is Jan Sterling, caught between her attraction to Andes and diverting the crude advances of McNally.

   While the camera work is fluid and very effective, the direction itself (Dick Powell’s debut) is often stagey and in effect calls attention to itself more than pleased me. Worse are the holes in the plot. Here’s one of them that puzzled me throughout the movie: How do so many people manage to avoid the roadblocks into the area to begin with?

 MARTIN H. GREENBERG, Editor – Deadly Doings. Ivy, paperback original; 1st printing, 1989.

   #2. P. D. JAMES “Murder, 1986.” Short story. First published in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, October 1970. Reprinted in Ellery Queen’s Anthology #30, 1975. Apparently still uncollected.

   The title of this story may or may not tell you this right away, but it is one that’s SF, through and through. Once you realize that it was written in 1970, though, some 16 years before the time period in which it’s set, then that statement will make a lot more sense.. But being that it was written by P. D. James, one of best known of recently deceased mystery writers, it’s definitely a detective story, too.

   It takes place in an alternate future that never took place, one in which a plague has enveloped the world. Isolated from the rest of society are the Ipdics (Interplanetary Disease Infection Carriers). Investigating the murder (not suicide) of a young woman who was one of them is Sergeant Dolby, the kind of guy who’s totally honest and committed, but who’s looked down upon by his superiors and who’s never sent out on more than petty crimes.

   He takes a personal interest in this one, though, in spite of being given no resources to solve it.

   I wish I could say that I enjoyed this one more than I did. It’s not the SFnal aspects that bother me — often times science fiction stories written by people without a sizable background in science fiction fail for exactly that reason. No, my real problem with this one. if I read it correctly, is that the author is deliberately unfair to the reader.

   To me this is bigger hurdle to get over than “not playing fair” is.


Previously in this Martin Greenberg anthology: IRA LEVIN “Sylvia.”

  DONALD WOLLHEIM, Editor, with Arthur W. Saha – The 1989 Annual World’s Best SF. Daw #783, paperback original; 1st printing, June 1989. Cover art by Jim Burns.

   #7. TANITH LEE “A Madonna of the Machine.” Short story. First published in Other Edens II, edited by Christopher Evans & Robert Holdstock (Unwin, UK, paperback; no US publication). Collected in Forests of the Night (Unwin, US, hardcover, 1989).

   During her lifetime — she died in 2015 at the age of 67 — Tanith Lee produced perhaps 90 novels and over 300 works of short fiction. She came to my attention in a big way, along with lots of other SF and fantasy fans, with the publication of her “Birthgrave” trilogy, all paperback originals from DAW: The Birthgrave (1975), Vazkor, Son of Vazkor (1978), and Quest for the White Witch (1978).

   What struck me the most about these novels was how she was able to take what on the face of them were pulp-oriented sword-and-sorcery books and give them a solid science fictional background. This wasn’t revealed until the end of the first book, and it fair knocked my socks off.

   “A Madonna of the Machine” takes a standard SFnal idea — that of a dreary super-regulated future in which the inhabitants have no future — and creates a tale in which visions of a rose-angel-goddess begins to appear to several main characters. They have never experienced anything in their lives like this before.

   Told in a lyrical, poetic and eventually magical or even surreal style, style, the effect is almost that of a fantasy tale than science fiction. Tanith Lee was a master of this, and if she hadn’t written more stories than I could ever read, I’d love to have read more of them.


Previously from the Wollheim anthology: KRISTINE KATHRYN RUSCH “Skin Deep.”

Introduction: I have discovered something I did some 38 years ago and had totally forgotten about. A sizable chunk of Fatal Kiss #17, my DAPA-Em zine at the time, consisted of a diary of everything I watched on TV during the month of February 1981. This included movies watched on HBO as well as ordinary network shows. And naturally I’ve decided to share everything with you, warts (perhaps) and all. What will follow on this blog over time are not likely to be full-fledged reviews, but as I say, commentary written many years ago by me in diary format.

         February 1.

STARTING OVER. (1979) Burt Reynolds, Jill Clayburgh, Candice Bergen. [Movie watched on HBO.]

   Moderately interesting. As I understand it, Reynolds thought he should have won an Oscar for his performance in this movie, or should have been nominated, or something. He plays a confused sort of guy who can’t make up his mind between is ex-wife (Bergen) who as the movie starts is in the process of divorcing him, or his new girl friend (Clayburgh).

   He and his ex-wife still get along together — in bed — but only for a little while. His girl friend is sensitive about her relationships with divorced men, and rightfully so.

   In all truth, Reynolds shows a little more acting ability than has been required of him in most of the parts he plays, but I still think he’s playing himself again. Nothing wrong with that. John Wayne did it for years.

   Rated R, apparently for the occasionally foul language (“Tommy, she said the ‘F’ word!), and for the see-through blouse Candice Bergen wears at one point, as she’s trying to win Burt back.


SCREAMING MIMI. Columbia Pictures, 1958. Anita Ekberg, Philip Carey, Gypsy Rose Lee, Harry Townes, Linda Cherney. Based on the novel The Screaming Mimi, by Fredric Brown. Director: Gerd Oswald.

THE BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMAGE. Seda Spettacoli, Italy-Germany, 1970. CBS, US, 1977 (TV, original airing). 21st Century Film Corporation, US, 1982. (theatrical re-release). Original title: L’uccello dalle piume di cristallo. Tony Musante, Suzy Kendall, Enrico Maria Salerno, Eva Renzi. Screenplay by Dario Argento, based on the novel The Screaming Mimi by Fredric Brown (uncredited). Director: Dario Argento.

   I’ve spoken often and highly of Fredric Brown;s classic mystery novel of strip-clubs and theology, The Screaming Mimi (Dutton, 1949) and recently betook myself to watching both film versions of it, side-by-side and back-to-back, through the miracle of VCRm watching a chunk of one, then the other, than back again…

   The Screaming Mimi (Columbia, 19580 offers some kicking-and-kinky direction from Gerd Oswald, a cult director in the Jim Jones tradition, which is to say he showed a lot of potential in low-budget westerns and thrillers, and managed one classic, A Kiss Before Dying (1956) before drinking the kool-aid of network television.

   Mimi belongs to his Promising period, with a pleasantly straightforward (for the 50s) to homosexuality, bondage, obsession and amour fou, but it’s undone by a screenplay that seems way too limp for a movie about serial killings.

   There’s never a sense of momentum here, no feeling of progressing towards some resolution. Instead, events just seem to come along and happening no particular order, the head off in any direction whatever, just sort of strutting and fretting across the screen till their allotted hour-or-so is over at last.

   A pity, because there are glimmers here and there of what could have been a perverse classic.

   The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (Italy, 1970) on the other hand, is a certified wowser. The directorial debut of Dario Argento, who became something of a Name in Horror films, this is a garish, fast-moving, humorous movie about serial slashing, stalking, knifing and general mayhem set against colorful locations, played and/or dubbed by a cast a cut (sorry!) above the usual run of Italian imports.

   Fredric Brown got no screen credit for this film, and for years critics who knew nothing about Pulp averred that it was based on an Edgar Wallace story, but I defy anyone out there to show me an Edgar Wallace book with this plot. I’ll wrestle anyone in the crowd who thinks he can do it. No takers? I thought not.

   Anyway, getting back to the story, this follows Brown’s novel pretty closely, right down to the minor characters and bits of by-play. Argento tossed away the thematic framework of Brown’s novel, and he turned the hard-drinking loner of the book into a young married couple, ut that’s a fate that befell many of us in the 70s.

   The fact is, this is a fairly faithful translation of The Screaming Mimi into film, and if not all of it could have been (The real meaning of the book isn’t revealed until the last page, and it’s truly harrowing.), it’s at least a fun ride.

— Reprinted from The Hound of Dr. Johnson, May 2005.

A STRANGE ADVENTURE. Republic Pictures, 1956. Joan Evans, Ben Cooper, Marla English, Jan Merlin, Nick Adams, Peter Miller. Director: William Witney.

   We could have a contest with 20 entries to choose a better title than the one A Strange Adventure was saddled with, and I have no doubt that all 20 would be a ten times improvement. My guess is that in 1956 Republic was beginning to cut back, a little at a time, and the first people to go were the ones in charge of choosing titles for the movies they made. (I don’t know what the particular job title for this might be.)

   It turns out that what this is is a heist film, a rather minor one, true, but with an action director such as William Witney at the helm, it does have its moments. There’s something happening on the screen all the time — that is to say until he ending, which I’ll get to in a moment.

   Marla English plays the femme fatale in this one, playing the young tempting sexpot role for all she’s worth, and the focus is almost entirely on her for most of the first half of the movie. First she’s flirting with Harold Norton (Ben Cooper), the hot rod-obsessed son of her landlady; then with the driver of the armored car she and her two confederates (Jan Merlin and Nick Adams) are going to rob; and then with the leader of the small threesome (Merlin), who doesn’t hesitate to slap her down whenever he thinks he should.

   Once the loot is in their hands, though, and the armored car driver dead, they don’t have much of a plan. They borrow Harold’s car (with him as driver) and speed off to the mountains at 100 miles per hour.

   With no one following them, this is not the best way to avoid being spotted by the police, but never fear, the police seem to be off looking somewhere else.

   And somehow they end up in a cabin about to be snowed in for the winter. In the cabin are a brother and sister (Joan Evans and Peter Miller) whose job it is is to monitor the amount of snow that’s fallen all winter long. One problem: the latter have to radio in twice a week, or the folks down below will know something is wrong. Three gang members with three captives, all in close quarters. No wonder things do not go well.

   Factoring in the fact the two male gang members are as dumb as dirt, the movie is still quite watchable, if not totally engaging. The ending is extremely rushed, though, and that’s putting it mildly. The production crew may have run out of money. I have no idea how Harold knew where the money was, or did he? I don’t think he did, nor did the writer of this whole misguided adventure.

SHELLEY SINGER – Spit in the Ocean. Jake Samson #4. St. Martin’s, hardcover, 1987. Worldwide, paperback, June 1989.

   Vandalism — let’s not get into whether you’d call it murder — at a sperm bank, then a fatal accident off the rocky spit into the ocean north of San Francisco suspiciously does look like murder. Luckily unlicensed PI Jake Samson is already on hand to investigate.

   Along with him is his partner, Rosie Vincente. It takes a while to determine their relationship more than that, but in a word: none. This mystery comes as close to the classic detective story as any I’ve read recently, spoiled only by a “gratuitous” sex scene.

–Reprinted from Mystery*File #14, July 1989.

        The Jake Samson series —

Samson’s Deal. St. Martin’s, 1983.
Free Draw. St. Martin’s, 1984.
Full House. St. Martin’s, 1986.]
Spit in the Ocean. St. Martin’s, 1987.
Suicide King. St. Martin’s, 1988.
Royal Flush. Perseverance, 1999.

  LESTER del REY, Editor – Best Science Fiction Stories of the Year: Second Annual Edition. E. P. Dutton, hardcover. 1973. Ace, paperback, December 1975.

   #9. VERNOR VINGE “Long Shot.” Short story. First appeared in Analog SF, August 1972. Collected in True Names … and Other Dangers (Baen, paperback, November 1987) and The Collected Stories of Vernor Vinge (Tor, hardcover, November 2001). Reprinted several times, including Explorers: SF Adventures to Far Horizons, edited by Gardner Dozois (St. Martins, trade paperback, April 2000).

   Vernor Vinge not only writes the kind of SF I like to read, but he has won Hugos for three novels he’s written: A Fire Upon the Deep (1992), A Deepness in the Sky (1999), Rainbows End (2006), as well as two novellas: Fast Times at Fairmont High (2002), and The Cookie Monster (2004). “Long Shot” didn’t win any awards, nor was it even nominated, but it’s a good one.

   For lack of a better word on my part, I’m going to call Ilse an A.I., although that may not be entirely true. She is female, that much is certain, so even though her brain is made of iron and germanium, laced with arsenic, the name Ilse fits her just fine.

   She is also the longest lived of all of Earth’s creatures “and perhaps the last.” Boosted into space and making a loop around the sun to gain acceleration, the ship she controls head off on a voyage lasting one hundred centuries and four light years.

   For what purpose? Although Ilse retains enough of her memory to make the minute changes in course to reach, Centauran system, by the time she nears the end of her voyage, she has forgotten the purpose of her mission, which of course is the entire point of the story. Which also when revealed to the reader, that very same reader will say “of course.”

   The math and the physics are only the clincher. This story is a prime example of hard SF at its finest.


Previously from the del Rey anthology: DONALD NOAKES “The Long Silence.”

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