April 2020

77 SUNSET STRIP “Girl on the Run” ABC, 10 October 1958 (Season 1, Episode 1). Efrem Zimbalist Jr. (Stuart Bailey). Guest Cast: Erin O’Brien, Shepperd Strudwick, Edward Byrnes, Barton MacLane, Ray Teal. Screenplay by Marion Hargrove, based on a story by Roy Huggins. Director: Richard L. Bare.

   There none of the trappings you usually think about whenever you think of 77 Sunset Strip, the series, in this the very first episode, the flashy sights of Hollywood, the joint practice of two or more PI’s working out of the same office, the car jockey who was always combing his hair and giving with the jive. It is generally accepted as fact that this, the pilot, was filmed and shown theatrically (somewhere in the Caribbean) before the series started with one nefarious purpose in mind. To swindle credit from writer Roy Huggins by claiming that the series was based on the film, not on any of his books or stories.

   As a ploy, it worked. Roy Huggins lost his suit and left the series, and never worked for Warners again. (I’m not absolutely certain about that last statement; Hollywood in many ways is much like politics, or so I’m told.)

   In any case, PI Stu Bailey is on his own in this one, with no connection with Hollywood, and Sunset Strip in particular. He’s hired by a client to find his missing fiancée, but what he doesn’t know, but we the viewer do, is that the girl in question is a witness to a shooting who went on the run when she quickly learns that as a police witness, her life is in immediate danger.

   It doesn’t take Bailey long to learn that he’s been taken, but not before the killer (well, of course that’s who Bailey’s client is) has hired a gun man (Edd Byrnes) to follow him and kill the girl. It is up to Bailey to foil the plot, along with the help of both a friendly cop and and an equally helpful union leader.

   Edd Byrnes proved so popular as the killer for hire that the producers wiped the first episode completely out of continuity and wrote Byrnes in as teen favorite “Kookie” Kookson, parking attendant and wannabe PI working next door to the office on the Strip that Bailey quickly found himself sharing with Jeff Spencer (Roger Smith) for most of the rest of the series.

   Looking back today, based on this first episode, it is not easy to see what the fuss was all about, except for Byrnes’ eye catching performance. As PI stories go, there is nothing especially new about “Girl on the Run.” With Stu Bailey as a lone wolf PI who finds himself falling in love with the girl he is helping, he’s just one of hundreds just like him.

   I can also only wish that as an established PI (note how impeccably dressed he always is), he’d have done his job right and checked a little more into the background of the guy who hired him. But of course if he had, there’d not have been much of a story at all, would there?

H. PAUL JEFFERS – Rubout at the Onyx. Harry McNeil #1. Ticknor & Fields, hardcover, 1981. Ballantine, paperback, 1987.

   Here is a private eye story, but by no means is it your common, everyday sort of private eye story. Instead, it’s a swinging trip into the past, an excursion by make-believe time machine into the history book of yesterday, back to the post-Prohibition jazz-era days of the Big Apple’s “Cradle of Jazz” — Fifty-Second Street, that is, between Fifth and Sixth. The year, 1935.

   The private eye is Harry MacNeil. His office is located upstairs over the Onyx Club, the heart of the jazz district. His client is a lately bereaved widow. Her husband was a two-bit gambler who was rubbed out downstairs on New Year’s Eve. She brings Harry a message in code that may lead them to a three million dollar fortune in stolen diamonds. She is also a little lonely.

   Balancing the two rather nicely, Jeffers never really seems to commit himself all the way to whether he’s writing a history first, or a mystery. Whatever it is, in the end, there’s no doubt whatsoever that it’s a lot more fun to puzzle through than any classroom textbook anyone’s ever been assigned to read. Strictly as a mystery, though … well, sad to say, there’s no great revelation that comes at the end. MacNeil uncovers the truth by just plain diligence, and the culprit is fairly obvious from a long way off.

Rating: B minus.

–Slightly revised from The MYSTERY FANcier, Vol. 5, No. 6, Nov/Dec 1981.

   The Harry MacNeil series –

The Rubout at the Onyx. Ticknor 1981 [New York City, NY; 1935]

Murder on Mike. St. Martin’s 1984 [New York City, NY; 1939]
The Rag Doll Murder, Ballantine 1987 [New York City, NY; 1935]



COTTAGE TO LET, aka BOMBSIGHT STOLEN. Gainsborough, UK. 1941. Leslie Banks, Alastair Sim, John Mills, George Cole, Michael Wilding, and a host of solid British supporting players. Screenplay by Anatole de Grunwald, from a play by John Kerr. Directed by Anthony Asquith.

   A surprisingly jaunty film to come out of England during the Blitz, and a solidly entertaining one.

   The plot circles around a cottage in Scotland that has been designated as a recovery hospital for wounded airmen. It has never had a patient, but:

   It houses the laboratory of an eccentric inventor (Leslie Banks) and:

   The grande dame who owns it decides it would be a perfect place to accommodate children evacuated from London during the Blitz. She gets only one, a scruffy street urchin (George Cole, in his film debut age 15) not knowing that:

   The agents who manage the Grande Dame’s property (he sign is an in-joke) have rented it out to Alastair Sim. and then:

   They get their first patient, a likeable downed flier (John Mills.)

   Add a comely nurse for romance, an officious butler for comic relief and it looks like a set-up for light comedy. But then:

   It develops that Banks’ inventions are really helping Britain in the War Effort, but information on them is leaking out to the Germans. So British Intelligence has sent someone there to ferret out the spy, and we’re supposed to guess Who is What while they all act suspiciously — except for the cockney kid from London, who is a fan of Sherlock Holmes (“The greatest bloke what ever lived!”) and uses his powers of deduction….

   From this point on, Cottage spins between deft comedy, suspense, and heart-stopping action in the early Hitchcock-Gilliatt vein, with cunning traps, narrow escapes, and characters with a bit more depth than one expects. Leslie Bank chafes so convincingly at official red tape that one suspects he may be selling his own secrets to the Nazis. John Mills is really quite moving as the flier who is not what he seems to be, and Alastair Sim, funny as ever, is surprisingly sinister in his best moments.

   This film began a life-long friendship between George Cole and Alastair Sim, who put him in many of his movies. It’s also a lot of fun, with a showy shoot-out in a tawdry hall of mirrors. Don’t be put off by the soporific title — this is the Goods!


SNEAKY PETE. “Pilot.” Amazon Prime Video. 07 August 2015. Giovanni Ribisi (Pete Murphy / Marius Josipovic), Marin Ireland, Shane McRae, Libe Barer, Michael Drayer, Peter Gerety, Peter Gerety, Margo Martindale. Series created by David Shore and Bryan Cranston. Director: Seth Gordon.

   When small time con man and sneak thief Marius Josipovic is released from prison, he quickly learns that he owes a big time gangster is on his trail for a large amount of money he thought he’d paid off. So what does he do? He heads for the home town of his former cell mate and passes himself as the other, a prodigal son finally returned home.

   How does he manage this? They have not seen him in a long time and his cell mate had bored him to tears with stories of his youth. What the newly minted Pete Murphy does not know is that his new family runs a well-oiled bail bond business, and he’s expected to move right in and an active employee. This leads, at least in this first episode, into an unexpected confrontation with someone he knows from his past. Also in the abeyance he has his own past that will, I am sure, continue to catch up with him.

   In terms of the basic plot lines, there are – and you may not noted this too — some similarities to the set up to the recently reviewed Cinemax series Banshee, which debuted in 2013, two years earlier. In that one the hero, also just out of prison and on the run, assumes the identity of the new sheriff, newly hired unseen. Similar, yes. but with enough differences to make each of them watchable without an excessive amount of déjà vu in switching from one to the other.

   Of the two, I enjoyed this one a little more than the other. There’s enough comic potential in this series – I’ve only seen this, the first episode – to make the same implausible set-up go down more easily, with perhaps less violence. Those of you who have seen more are welcome to tell me otherwise, but I know others enjoyed this one too. It was on for three seasons, and apparently left quite a few viewers wanting more.


DARK MOUNTAIN. Paramount Pictures, 1944. Robert Lowery, Ellen Drew, Regis Toomey, Eddie Quillan, Elisha Cook Jr. Director: William Berke.

   Robert Lowery may have been the nominal star of this film, but it’s the villain of the piece, played exceedingly well by Regis Toomey, who takes home the acting honors, and by a landslide. Lowery plays a stalwart but not exceedingly bright park ranger, or shall we say not terribly swift on the uptake, who when he gets a promotion, finally asks his girl (Ellen Drew) to marry him.

   He, of course, has waited to long to make his affection in this regard known, and she has already married another. Regis Toomey, that is, and you know immediately, once he walks into the room, that he’s an out-and-out no-good-nik. Lowery bows out gracefully, or at least his character does. But when Toomey’s character shows his true colors, kills two people, and takes Drew with him on the lam, Lowrey is there to aid and assist and eventually pick up the pieces.

   It does take a while, but even so, to fill out the running time, the film still needs some comedy mixed in with the suspense, which is minor to begin with. Comedy provided courtesy of Eddie Quillan, Lowery’s fellow ranger who in one scene plays checkers with himself for well over five minutes, or what seems like it, his moves on either side of the board assisted by the knowing nods or disapproving shakes of his dog’s head.

   Reading back what I’ve written so far, I should caution you that the movie isn’t as bad as I’ve probably made it sound. Regis Toomey, in particular, is just as fine as the kind of smooth-talker operator who could have someone like Ellen Drew fall in love with him as he is the kind of villain who can wipe out anyone who crosses his path without thinking at all about it. Most of his career, I suspect, was spent in secondary roles such as this one and doing them well.




CAPT. W. E. JOHNS – Biggles in the Blue. Biggles #45. Brockhampton Press, UK, hardcover, 1953. Knight, UK, paperback, 1968. Reprinted several times. No US edition. Readable online at www.archive.org.

   â€œThey say there are snakes in the garden.”

   Biggles smiled. “Snakes don’t bother me. I can handle them. After all, I’ve had a lot of experience – as you know.”

   â€œI believe it is fact that even the best snake-charmers usually die of snake bite at the end,” said von Stalhien softly. “I merely mention the danger in passing…”

   That bit of classic badinage could have come from any thriller written from the twenties on, but in this case it is between two of the most popular adversaries in young adult fiction in the United Kingdom, James Bigglesworth and his frequent Moriarity Erich von Stalhein,

   The year is 1953, and Bigglesworth of the RAF and the Special Air Police is in Jamaica confronting Erich von Stalhein his old adversary going back to WW I in peacetime. A German war criminal named Wolff has died in Jamaica posing as a man named Hagen and in his home there is the clue to the secret that von Stalhein and Biggles are both after, plans of experimental weapons including the dreaded V series rockets that fell on London late in the war.

   Von Stalhien has connections in Eastern Europe and a new master, the Russian Zorotov.

   The papers are on an island, but which of the many small cays in the area? The clue is somewhere in Wolff/Hagen’s Kingston home

   As Air Commodore Raymond of the Special Air Police explained when he sent Detective Inspector Bigglesworh on the case: “…get things clear. We want these plans, not so much for our own use but to prevent them falling into the hands of a potential enemy.”

   Which finds Biggles, as his friends call him, ace of two wars, and hero of dozens of adventures in war and out, in Jamaica at Wolff/Hagen’s home Rumkeg Haven, with his usual team of Air Constables Algy, Bert, and Ginger.

   W. E. Johns, the author of the popular Biggles series that eventually would include books, radio (Monty Python alumni Michael Palin read Biggles Flies North on radio), comics, a flying teddy bear also named Biggles, and even a big budget movie, Biggles, Adventures in Time, was himself a pilot in the Great War whose greatest success came with the adventures of his young First War ace. Johns also wrote some adult thrillers and even cracked the British pulp Thriller, but none of his other work inspired the long term success as the adventures of Biggles and his friends. Many of the books are still in print or at least easily available.

   Johns’ affections for the character and investment in his adventures make the Biggles series a good deal more personal than many such works.

   The Biggles books run in the fifty to sixty thousand word range and include illustrations by frequent illustrator Peter Archer. The writing is a bit better generally than the equivalent Hardy Boys or Nancy Drew in this country, with somewhat more action and more dangerous villains. The level of action isn’t far off the standard thriller of the twenties and thirties or the hero pulps here though there is a good deal of good old chums business — though that isn’t far off the kind of schoolboy thing Bulldog Drummond got up to with his pals.

   Surprisingly the book is less politically incorrect than you might expect. There is a minor black villain (Morgan, who is at least a would be Napoleon and not merely a thug), but also a strong smart black woman who saves the boys lives and helps them get the best of von Stalhein and the Russian submarine he stalks them in. That hasn’t been true of all the Biggles books I’ve read, but they are generally at least less tiresome than most books of that era about such things.

   As juvenile fiction of the time period — roughly the early thirties through the sixties — the Biggles series reads well enough, contains some genuine thrills, and considering it began as the adventures of a World War One ace has certainly got around over the years, taking Biggles to every corner of the globe. His adventures may not be well known on these shores, but in much of the world his name is one to conjure with.

J. J. des ORMEAUX “The Poisoned Bowl.” Novelette. First published in Clues Detective Stories, April 1939. Reprinted in The Mammoth Book of Perfect Crimes and Impossible Mysteries, edited by Mike Ashley (Running Press, softcover, 2006), as by Forrest Rosaire.

   I used the term “Locked Room Mystery” up there in the heading, but that’s only in the loosest of terms. “Impossible Mystery” is far better: in “The Poisoned Bowl” a man falls dead of an instantly fatal poison with several people standing around him and no one giving him anything to eat or drink, including himself. How could it be done?

   It’s an interesting question, and J. J. des Ormeaux, a modestly prolific pulp writer whose real name was Forrest Rosaire, does his best to confuse the issue by a lot of hand-waving and other such means of distraction. Lots of coincidences, in other words, not to mention keeping relevant information from the reader. The final result is a veritable hodge-podge of a story, but … it all does make sense in the end, sort of.

   A question is, could a better writer (or editor) have taken this story, cleaned it up and made something more presentable out of it? Answer: There’s a germ of a good story at the base of it, so I’d like to think so, but in all honesty, without the hand-waving and the holding back of vital information from the reader, it would be awfully tough. Fun to read, especially if you love pulps, but all in all, no cigars for this one.




MIDNIGHT LACE. Universal Pictures, 1960. Doris Day, Rex Harrison, John Gavin, Myrna Loy, Roddy McDowall, Herbert Marshall, Natasha Parry, Hermione Baddeley, John Williams, Anthony Dawson. Director: David Miller

   Kit Preston (Doris Day) is an American heiress, living with her financier husband Tony (Rex Harrison) in affluent Grosvenor Square. Three months into their marriage, all seems well, but during a night-time walk alone through the foggy London streets, Kit hears a high, ghostly voice which, as well as knowing her name, threatens to kill her. Kit escapes, though her story is received light-heartedly by Tony, who believes a merciless practical joker is behind the incident. Next day, an accident at a construction site nearly kills Kit, and she is saved by good-looking contractor Brian Younger (John Gavin), who also, somehow, knows her name. Things get even more sinister when Kit receives a mysterious telephone call and is terrorised anew by the voice – now vowing to kill her by the end of the month.

   At the behest of Kit’s friend and neighbour Peggy (Natasha Parry), Tony takes Kit to Scotland Yard. Inspector Byrnes (John Williams) suspects Kit may be lying in order to receive attention from her busy husband. Kit continues to be terrorised by phone calls and remains on edge whenever she ventures outside. On one such occasion, she again encounters Brian, who reveals he used to suffer blackouts during the war. Kit is later menaced by a scarred man at home (Anthony Dawson), but nobody believes her.

   Even Tony thinks she is delusional, particularly when a doctor suggests Kit may be suffering from a split personality and arranging the calls herself. Tony is already distracted by work – an embezzler is stealing funds from his company – but decides to take Kit on holiday to Venice after she breaks down in despair. The caller, though, rings again and promises to kill her that evening. Tony and Kit plan a trap, one that quickly gets out of hand…

   Think Doris Day, and most people will think of romantic-comedies like Pillow Talk and That Touch of Mink, the musicals Calamity Jane and Young at Heart, and ‘Que Sera Sera’. But, of course, that song came from Hitch’s The Man Who Knew Too Much, which sometimes seems to be forgotten when considering Day’s catalogue. Perhaps because it was emphatically a Hitchcock film, with no less a titan than James Stewart in the main role, but it at least proved she could perform persuasively in another genre. She did it again, sandwiched between two Rock Hudson pairings, in 1960’s Midnight Lace. Coincidentally, or not, this psychological thriller pulls plenty from the Hitchcock playbook. In fact, it was hard for me to think of it as anything else. Aside from Day, it features three other actors who had been cast by Hitchcock in other films – Anthony Dawson and John Williams from Dial M for Murder, and almost-Bond John Gavin from Psycho.

   All of whom are reliably good whatever they are in, and though Dawson has far less to do here, he remains an ominous presence throughout, skulking enigmatically in doorways and giving Day – and us – the shivers. John Williams, happily, is playing more or less the same role as he did six years earlier, remaining every bit the quintessential Scotland Yard detective. Midnight Lace has other similarities too, being set in London and revolving around a wealthy blonde woman, married to a dark-haired Englishman named Tony, while her life is in danger. Grace Kelly, of course, had no warnings, while here Day is given almost nothing else. Relentlessly menaced, and disbelieved by everyone she knows, Kit begins to lose her sanity – something which the audience may already be questioning too.

   The films charts this descent, but in broad strokes, making the whole thing seem more like the grim, foreboding Suspicion rather than a psychoanalytical study like Spellbound. Obviously, it also evokes Gaslight, though this is a little less sinister as Kit never truly believes she is mad. The film would today be described as domestic noir.

   Though I like this name, it does rather ignore the fact that the genre stretches back at least to the eighteenth century gothic fictions which Jane Austen partially parodied with Northanger Abbey, then onwards into the romantic suspense novels of Mary Stewart, Victoria Holt and V. C. Andrews. The heroines in such things, however, were more independent than Kit is here. She doesn’t investigate the situation, merely suffers it, while a man comes to her aid at the end. There’s a short scene at the opera where she is politely assertive to a creepy, though thankfully furless, Roddy McDowall, and it would have been nice to see her demonstrate such steel elsewhere. Were it remade today, its star would almost certainly demand more fight from the character, though perhaps that would remove the elements of danger and helplessness which otherwise defines this gripping, atmospheric thriller. Highly recommended.

Rating:  *****




THE TRAP. Paramount Pictures, 1959. Richard Widmark, Lee J. Cobb, Tina Louise, Earl Holliman , Carl Benton Reid, Lorne Greene, Peter Baldwin. Director: Norman Panama.

   After about ten minutes, I was about to give up on The Trap. That would have been a big mistake. What first appears to be a middling family drama slowly gives way to a gritty and violent desert noir. There is something just so stagy about the opening sequences that makes me wonder whether other people have dismissed this rather obscure crime film out of hand. Because it certainly doesn’t seem to have wide appeal, let alone be referred to very often by noir or crime film enthusiasts.

   While it’s by no means a masterpiece and has more than its fair share of limitations, The Trap is an overall taut and enjoyable little thriller. Richard Widmark, always enjoyable in my book, portrays Ralph Anderson, a shyster lawyer tasked by the mob to arrange for an airstrip in his small California hometown to be operational.

   Why is this such a big deal, you might ask yourself. Well, it’s because fugitive mob boss Victor Massonetti (Lee J. Cobb) needs an airfield to flee the country. So, Ralph shows up in his small desert hometown for the the first time in ten years and pleads with his father, the town sheriff, to keep the airfield open. His brother Tippy (Earl Holliman), who is now married to his high school sweetheart Linda (Tina Louise), would rather just collect the reward. There’s a longstanding feud between the two brothers which plays out over the course of the film. It’s an important part of the plot, but nothing you haven’t seen repeated time and again in westerns.

   Overall, The Trap is successful in its storytelling. The movie moves at a fairly rapid clip and whenever it does seem to be slowing down or going in circles, it picks itself up and charges in a new and often surprising direction. Widmark and Cobb give solid performances, even if the latter’s rendition of what a mob boss should sound like gets repetitive and downright grating.

   What’s distinctly lacking in the movie is any real cinematic sense. Although the movie is set against harsh desert vistas, neither the director nor cinematographer seemed interested or willing to fully capture the landscape in any meaningful sense. Rather, we often get a made for television aesthetic. Not bad, by any means. But just not something visually intoxicating. One wonders whether the movie would have actually been better had it been filmed in black and white.

   Nevertheless, The Trap is worth a watch. It may not be among Widmark’s best films from the era, but if you like him as an actor, you will surely mind much to appreciate in this one. One final note. Lorne Greene, who I always enjoy, has a supporting role as a mob enforcer.


VECHEL HOWARD – Murder with Love. Johnny Church #1. Gold Medal #854, paperback original, 1959.

   Vechel Howard is not, I strongly suspect, that mystery readers will ever have at the tip of their tongues, and even if I tell that his real name was Howard Rigsby, and that he wrote nine mysteries under that name, it would not bring any of their titles to mind. As Vechel Howard he wrote two PI novels for Gold Medal, along with three or four westerns, This is the first recorded adventure of one Johnny Church, and it’s one of those cases that gets him so personally involved that you wonder when it’s over whether there will ever be another one. (But there was, that being Murder on Her Mind, a book that was published later that same year by Gold Medal.)

   The scene in this one is Las Vegas, where his client wants him to find a woman. He’s not the only one, either. Mira, as Church soon discovers, has had an uncontrollable habit of getting men to fall in love with her and then taking off with all the money and expensive gifts that had been bestowed upon her, disappearing as mysteriously as she had suddenly appeared.

   This time, however, Church finds that blackmail, never part of her game before, has been added to her repertoire – and can murder be far behind? Church also stumbles across a pair of delectable twin sisters – but he’s really the kind of guy who gets hit over the head a lot and goes to bed with almost nobody. Almost.

   The action is standard enough. It’s the ending that’s unusual. A bit maudlin as well, perhaps, but it’s the kind that lingers on. Longer, in fact, than the story itself.

Rating: B minus.

–Somewhat abridged from The MYSTERY FANcier, Vol. 5, No. 6, Nov/Dec 1981.

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