September 2020

Three Movie Reviews by Dan Stumpf.


THE PEARL OF DEATH. Universal, 1944. Basil Rathbone (Sherlock Holmes), Nigel Bruce (Doctor Watson), Dennis Hoey (Inspector Lestrade), Evelyn Ankers, Rondo Hatton.
Based on the characters created by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Director: Roy William Neill.

HOUSE OF HORRORS . Universal, 1946. Robert Lowery, Virginia Grey, Bill Goodwin, Martin Kosleck, Alan Napier, Virginia Christine, Howard Freeman, Joan Shawlee and Rondo Hatton. Screenplay by George Bricker & Dwight V. Babcock. Directed by Jean Yarborough.

THE BRUTE MAN. Universal/PRC, 1946. Rondo Hatton, Tom Neal, Jan Wiley, Jane Adams. Screenplay by George Bricker and M Coates Webster, from a story by Dwight V Babcock. Directed by Jean Yarbrough.

   Universal is fondly remembered as the home of Frankenstein, Dracula, the Wolfman, and other classic horrors, but they had their share of misfires too. Kharis was more wet blanket than monster, no one could decide what Paula the Ape Woman looked like, the Mad Ghoul stalled out early…

   And then there was The Creeper.


   A certain amount of controversy has attached to Rondo Hatton, some seeing him as a victim of crass exploitation, others as a man who willingly used his misfortune as best he could. Scott Gallinghouse’s perceptive biography (RONDO HATTON: Beauty Within the Brute, Bear Manor, 2019) paints a picture of a man who enjoyed his brief and tenuous stardom, was celebrated in his home town, and played it up, entertaining guests, and visiting wounded GIs in Army Hospitals.

   Hatton played bits and extras in Hollywood for years until someone spotted him for a choice part in PEARL OF DEATH (1944: reviewed here ) a superior entry in the Sherlock Holmes series which used Hatton sparingly and to eerie effect as “The Hoxton Creeper” a hulking, silent, spine-snapping killer.

   Finding a new Horror Star dropped in their laps, Universal slipped him into JUNGLE CAPTIVE (1945) and THE SPIDER WOMAN STRIKES BACK (1946, a spin-off from the Sherlock Holmes series, with Gale Sondergaard) then somebody looked back at PEARL OF DEATH and decided it was impressive enough for Universal to launch a series, produced by Ben Pivar (of the Mummy movies) who brought his own working-class perspective and lack of interest to bear, with the usual tepid results.

   Pivar’s series kicked off with HOUSE OF HORRORS and a better-than-average cast. Alan Napier does a dead-on Waldo Lydecker impression as an art critic, and Howard Freeman is even better as his effeminate replacement. Top honors, however, must go to Martin Kosleckd sculptor.

   Kosleck occupied a niche in horror movies somewhere between Peter Lorre and Dwight Frye, and his greatest moment came in HOUSE OF HORRORS, as a demented sculptor at odds with the Art World, who sends the Creeper out to murder his critics — an idea that recalls various versions of THE GOLEM. Kosleck’s art isn’t much good, but it is sort of interesting, and I’d like to see how his style might have developed… but any semblance of atmosphere is dispelled as soon as Rondo Hatton opens his mouth to speak and there is just No Talent here. It wouldn’t have taken much brains to write a script where the Creeper stays silent – just some interest and maybe a little imagination – but that was obviously more than Pivar wanted to invest.

   THE BRUTE MAN, released later the same year, is even tackier and less interesting. Hatton died soon after it wrapped, and Universal, with tastefulness rare for them, decided not to release it. Instead, they sold it to PRC (an even cheaper studio) who put it out as part of their steady trickle of sub-B flicks. Historians of both studios (and there are some) usually use this as an excuse not to discuss BRUTE MAN, which is probably the kindest cut of all.

   I have to say, though, that BRUTE and HORRORS set their monster loose amid flophouses, tenements and seedy second-hand stores, bad as they are (and maybe because of Ben Pivar’s penny-squeezing) these movies evoke that seamy background kind of effectively; it’s like David Goodis wrote a monster movie.

   Strictly as an aside, imagine my surprise when I saw Rondo Hatton and Elena Verdugo, the campy Gypsy Girl in HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN, in a classy movie like THE MOON AND SIXPENCE (1942) which just goes to show what a many-splendored thing The Movies is.

   Don’t write so that you can be understood, write so that you can’t be misunderstood.

               — William Howard Taft.

I used to think I was indecisive, but now I’m not so sure.

You only need two tools in life: WD-40 and duct tape. It it doesn’t move and should, use the WD-40. It it shouldn’t move and does, use the duct tape.

Almost literally. I lost my footing and fell on Thursday, breaking my fall with my left arm, but wrenching my wrist badly enough that my arm is now all wrapped up in whole cloth from elbow to near finger tips. The general assessment is that it will be a week before it comes off. The cast, not the arm. I can type with one hand, but it’s not fun, especially when I need a capital letter every now and then. So, I’m sorry to say, taking a break is the operative term. Except for an occasional update, I’m sure, I’ll see you on the other side.



THE STRANGERS IN 7A. Made for TV film. CBS, 14 November 1972. Running time: 74 minutes. Cast: Andy Griffith (Artie Sawyer), Ida Lupino (Iris Sawyer), Michael Brandon (Billy), James A. Watson, Jr. (Riff), Tim McIntire (Virgil), Susanne Benton (Claudine; billed as Susanne Hildur), Connie Sawyer (Mrs. Layton), Virginia Vincent (woman in bank). Writers: Eric Roth, based on the novel by Fielden Farrington. Music: Morton Stevens. Producers: Mark Carliner Productions and Palomar Pictures International. Director: Paul Wendkos.

   Artie Sawyer is the superintendent of an apartment house. The marriage between him and his wife Iris has taken a downturn, so when she leaves town to visit her sister, Artie moseys down to the local bar to “relax.” It isn’t long, however, before his relaxed mood is dissipated when he encounters Claudine, a pretty young thing who uses every available (and some not readily available) feminine wile to coax Artie into letting her spend the night in one of his apartments — at which she is predictably successful, since it’s plainly obvious what’s on Artie’s mind.

   It’s while she and Arnie are experiencing a really close encounter with each other that three men (with, we soon learn, brief cases containing sawed-off shotguns and something even more explosive) barge in and spoil the mood; the only thing these three have on their minds is that $800,000 in the vault of the bank that just happens to be next door to Artie’s apartment house . . .

   And that’s the first third of this movie, which takes its time to get moving. Like John Payne and Dick Powell before him, Andy Griffith must have been anxious to change his well-established small-town persona to something a little more adult and cashable; this one succeeds in doing that by having Griffith’s character engage in an extra-marital affair — although, to be clear, there isn’t enough time for it to go anywhere. Griffith would later do a few more made for TV films like this one before landing the plum role of Matlock.

   The most impressive cast member isn’t Ida Lupino, ordinarily a splendid actress and director, who surprisingly doesn’t have much to do here. The standout is Michael Brandon, who almost steals the show as the passive-aggressive ring leader; what happens to his character is fitting but comes off as anticlimactic considering what has gone before.

   All in all, The Strangers in 7A is a fairly standard but efficient low budget caper movie; no plot surprises, of course, but well acted and definitely not a waste of time. It’s available on video from Synergy Entertainment and, for now, YouTube’s Cult Cinema Classics channel.

A British Dramatic Radio Review
by David Vineyard.


         1. Dead Man’s Bay by P. M. Hubbard. BBC Saturday Night Theater.
         2. Fire, Burn by John Dickson Carr. BBC Saturday Night Theater.
         3. The Silver Mistress by Peter O’ Donnell. 15 Minute Serial in 5 Parts

   Radio drama lasted far longer outside the US in most countries with the BBC keeping up the tradition even today with adaptations of Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels and recently Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe (both starring Toby Stephens who replaced Ed Bishop as the BBC’s Marlowe) among others and even the Saint in adaptations of Leslie Charteris’s novels.

   The great thing is many of these shows both modern and from the past are available to listen to on YouTube and at Internet Archive presenting a rich mixture varying from classic mystery, romance, adventure, science fiction, horror, and mainstream plays and books, sometimes with unknown cast and others more familiar names.

   BBC’s Saturday Night Theater was a rich series producing original and adapted radio dramas from a variety of sources including many outstanding mystery writers.

   P. M. Hubbard (Philip Maitland Hubbard) was a successful mystery writer whose career, though short (1963 to 1979) included numerous highly regarded suspense and adventure novels such as Kill Claudio, High Tide, The Dancing Men, and Causeway Bay, varying from international intrigue, to straight adventure, to some decidedly left hand turns into near Gothic or horror fiction along the way.

   Dead Man’s Bay is an original play written  by Hubbard for the BBC about Peter Robinson, an ordinary fellow who falls in with Joe Benson, a bad sort, who convinces Peter, against the wishes of his wife Letty, that his beloved sail boat and knowledge of local waters means he could pick up some much needed money with a little side of smuggling.

   Avoiding the excise man is an old British tradition practiced less as crime than a sort of game played for centuries by British smugglers and subject of many a classic tale from Daphne DuMaurier’s Jamaica Inn to Graham Greene’s The Man Within, Russell Thorndyke’s Dr. Syn books, and Geoffrey Household’s comedic “Brandy for the Parson.”

   Also along the rugged coast where Peter plies his game with the Inland Revenue is a top secret British installation referred to only as The Establishment. Peter and Letty’s close friend Jim Hardwicke is in charge of security there and Peter’s wastrel brother Ricky, who knew and loved Letty before she met Peter, a Naval officer under him.

   But when Joe Benson reveals to Peter he has really been smuggling dope in from France and threatens blackmail to force Peter to make one last run and something occurs at the Establishment that has police roadblocks up all over the area Peter confronts something more sinister than even dope smuggling and a heartbreaking choice.

   There are no surprises in the story. You will likely be well ahead of the cast in figuring where it is going, but the story is told in bright smart dialogue and the atmosphere and storytelling make for an entertaining and vivid drama.

   Fire, Burn, John Dickson Carr’s classic historical mystery comes with a strong adaptation by John Kier Cross (author of, among others, a fine collection of his own weird fiction), and explores once again Carr’s fascination with the Berkeley Square (after the classic play and films) plot device of a romantic minded man thrown back in time through little but sheer will and his adventures there.

   This time the gentleman is Scotland Yard’s John Cheviot who gets in a taxi in 1960’s (the date of the radio play) London and after a bump on the head finds himself in 1829 London just appointed to the newly formed Police under Robert Peel as Superintendent of the Detective Force, and for his first case assigned to solve the mystery of who stole the bird seed from an influential dowager.

   Almost before you or Cheviot can digest this humiliation, he finds himself witness to an impossible crime, the murder of one Margaret Renfield (a witcherly type of whom Edmund Kean, the actor, once quipped ‘Fire burn and cauldron bubble’ in reference to), concealing evidence to protect his mistress, dueling with the most dangerous man in London, and determined to use modern methods to solve the crime, even though he is rapidly forgetting the John Cheviot from the 1960’s.

   Cross manages to hit all the right notes from the novel in a quickly paced hour and eighty six minutes, replete with a raid and brawl in a London gaming house, and a classic impossible crime solution. There is even an epilogue from the book explaining who was real in the story and the real life crime Carr based the book’s solution on.

   You can almost feel the fog in your chest and see the gaslit streets of 1829 London.

   There have been five books in the Modesty Blaise series adapted for the fifteen minute daily serial, a BBC feature that tends toward lighter popular fare, but with no letup in quality. These are faithful adaptations of the popular books with Modesty and Willie Garvin and the other characters from the books brought vividly to life.

   The Silver Mistress came about midway in the book series and features Modesty and Willie’s friend and sometime boss Sir Gerald Tarrant kidnapped and held prisoner in the haunted mountainous region of France. Along with Tarrant’s aide Fraser they set out to find Tarrant and rescue him leading to one of Modesty’s most deadly fights in the darkness of an underground cave system with a freezing cold river running through it.

   As you can imagine the radio drama plays that scene for full blooded fun.

   All the Blaise adaptations have been good and faithful, but this one works particularly well as radio drama.

   Radio drama differs from audiobook versions of the same material in that it moves at a much faster pace (it can take up to eleven hours or more to listen to many audiobooks), and because a good radio play choreographs not only the dramatic highlights, but also allows for a varied cast of talented voice actors to bring the material to life.

   Entertaining as it can be for an author or actor to perform an audiobook well (Stacy Keach reading Mike Hammer or Kevin Conroy Travis McGee come to mind), it can’t rival a cast of talented actors and sound crew giving full performances.

   There are many other examples to sample easily found at the two sources I mentioned including books by Mary Stewart, Margery Allingham, Agatha Christie, Andrew Garve, Michael Gilbert, Joyce Porter, C. S. Forester, and many other names familiar to this blog. It’s a particularly attractive way to revisit an old favorite you might not want to reread, but one you don’t want to forget either and often adds a new dimension to the original.

ROUTE 66. “Black November.” CBS, 60m, 07 Oct 1960 (Season 1, Episode 1). Martin Milner (Tod Stiles), George Maharis (Buz Murdock). Guest Cast: Everett Sloane, Patty McCormack, Keir Dullea, Whit Bissell, George Kennedy. Musical theme: Nelson Riddle. Screenwriter: Stirling Silliphant. Director: Philip Leacock. Currently streaming on Amazon Prime Video.

   Chronicling the adventures of two roving buddies making their way across the width and breath of the United States, this was arguably the iconic TV shows of the early 1960s. Of its kind, while I personally missed it entirely, it was certainly the most successful. I was off in college at the time, and I think I had time to watch television at most two or three, with the choice limited to one TV channel.

   I knew about it, of course, even without access to our family’s subscription to TV Guide, which I was addicted to all though high school. (Who in the early 60s did not?) So when I learned that Amazon Prime was streaming it free to subscribers, I thought it high past time to catch up on a serious lack in my cultural heritage.

   I’m glad I did. This first episode’s a good one. The two buddies with a brand new car and two pair of restless feet to drive it find themselves in quite a predicament – at one time with ropes around their necks waiting to be lynched. This is not anything the Mississippi Tourist Bureau would want anyone to see! I suppose that in 1960, backward places such as the small town of Garth might exist, just like the most secluded rural parts of England, where strangers never come, and when they do, they are looked on by residents as Demons from Hell.

   One man rules the town with a iron thumb, and his name is Garth (Everett Sloane). The town also has a secret, but absolutely no one will talk about it. The daughter (Patty McCormack) of the local storekeeper is the only one who offers them a timid, shy smile. Everyone else has dark sullen faces, constantly staring at the pair with dark hostility. There is also, of all things, but it fits in perfectly, a creepy scene in which the townsfolk storm the grocery store with torches blazing away in the darkness.

   As the pilot episode, this certainly is an effective one. It starts, however, after they’ve already been on the road for a while, and it’s only in their conversation that we get hints of who they are and what set them on their way. If you are puzzled why they were heading for Biloxi before they got lost, a town nowhere near Route 66, I have often wondered that about the series myself. They ended up all over the US during the four years the program was on the air. I have finally assumed that the cross-country Route 66 was only a metaphor for anyone traveling here and there at whim and will, with no particular destination in mind.

KIERAN SHEA “The Lifeguard Method.” Charlie Byrne #1. First published in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, August 2009. Probably never collected or reprinted.

   This is both Kieran Shea’s first published story and (of course) the first recorded case of PI Charlie Byrne. Although most of the story takes place in a room at the Trump Taj Mahal in Atlantic City, Byrne seems to be permanently based in Philadelphia. Most of his work is for hotshot litigator there, having saved his son Andy from drowning while working as a lifeguard at a beach when the boy was only six.

   Andy is now in his early 20s and is foolishly trying to scam his father out of fifty grand by faking his own kidnapping. Byrne is having none of it, but makes the initial mistake of taking everything for granted, a mistake he doesn’t make twice.

   In her introduction to the story, the editor points out that it was difficult to decide whether to put this tale in their Department of First Stories, or in their “Black Mask” section. They chose the latter, and it was a good choice. Without being able to say more, this is one of the most hard-boiled stories I’ve read in a long time.

   It was also stated in the introduction that the author was working on a novel involving Charlie Byrne, but if so, it may have never been completed. There was one more appearance for this otherwise one-shot PI, that being “Shift Work,” which was serialized in three parts in an ezine titled Crime Factory, March, May & July 2010.

Reviews by L. J. Roberts


DONNA LEON – Trace Elements. Commissario Guido Brunetti #29. Atlantic Monthly Press, hardcover, March 2020. Setting: Contemporary Venice.

First Sentence: A man and a woman deep in conversation approached the steps of Pone dei Lustraferi, both looking hot and uncomfortable on this late July afternoon.

   Benedetta Toso, a dying hospice patient who asks to speak with the police, claims her husband, Vittorio Fadalto, was murdered over “bad money.” Commissario Brunetti and his colleague, Claudia Griffoni, promise to investigate the matter, but was it murder or an accident? Suspicions mount as they learn more about Vittorio’s job, that of collecting samples of water to be tested for contamination. Piecing together the tangled threads, Brunetti comes to realize the perilous meaning in the woman’s accusation and the threat it reveals to the health of the entire region.

   With an excellent beginning, one learns that being a Neapolitan in Venice is a “far greater handicap than being a woman.”— and that one may not want to visit Venice during the summer. Leon’s voice is always a pleasure. When talking about the heat, she conveys the sense of it without referencing it directly– “Brunetti realized only then how hot he was. He tried to lift his right leg, but it was glued to the chair by sweat.” It is these touches that bring Venice to life by allowing us to see the city as those who live there do.

   There is a second plot thread of two Romany pickpockets. It is interesting to learn the differences between how crimes are handled in Italy versus the United States. The secondary plot does raise interesting points. Leon’s descriptions, from the route to an address Brunetti takes that only a resident would know, to his description of a room badly decorated, to food, are a delight and bring the city to life. Even a plate of sandwiches at a bar sound good– “From the sides of the sandwiches spilled ham, egg tomato, tuna salad, radicchio, rucola, shrimp, artichokes, asparagus, and olives.”

   Leon is wonderful at injecting verbal exchanges to make one chuckle. When called into his boss’s office, Signorina Elettra remarks– “If you aren’t out in fifteen minutes, I’ll call the police.” However, she is also very good at making one pause and consider, as with Bruno’s conversation with a nurse– “But if you work with death, you have to become spiritual, or you can’t do it any more. … when they get close to the end, you can sense their spirit, or you sense that it’s there. They do, too. And it helps them. And us.” She knows how to touch one’s emotions– “Griffoni…raised a hand and threw open her palm, as if to release the dead woman’s spirit into the air. The three of them remained silent for enough time to allow that spirit to escape the room…”

   There is something wonderful about a policeman who reads Lysistrata for pleasure and describes Agamemnon as a “windbag commander.” The relationship between Brunetti and his wife Paoli adds normality. It is one of a couple who have been married a long time and still love one another. An interesting characteristic of Leon is that when her characters are in a professional setting, she references them by their surnames, yet when in a personal setting, or amongst one another as friends, she uses their first names.

   Leon is incredibly good at building a story. She takes one along with her through the steps with an amazing subtlety to the clues. Trace Elements is a police procedural without car chases or gunplay, but with a somewhat political theme. It is a very contemporary mystery with a contemporary crime. It reflects on the degradation of true justice in our time and on compromise. For some, the ending may not seem satisfactory, but upon reflection, there is some small justice amidst justice that cannot be achieved.

Rating: Very Good.

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