October 2020


PHANTOM OF THE OPERA. Universal Picures, 1943. Nelson Eddy, Susanna Foster, Claude Rains, Edgar Barrier, Leo Carillo, J. Edward Bromberg. Jane Farrar, Frank Puglia, Stefan Geray, Fritz Feld, Miles Mander, Fritz Leiber, Barbara Everest, Hume Cronin. Screenplay by Eric Taylor & Samuel Hoffenstein. Adapted by Hans Jacoby as John Jacoby, based on the novel by Gaston Leroux. Directed by Arthur Lubin,

   When Universal sought to capitalize on the film that first made them a great studio in the silent era thanks to Lon Chaney Sr., they spared no expense. Like the original silent film, this version of the oft-told tale features lavish sets and costumes, a cast of some of the finest faces in Hollywood, including the ever popular Nelson Eddy, and one of the finest actors in Hollywood in the lead as the Phantom, Claude Rains.

   To this, add an original operatic score, cinematography by W. Howard Greene and Hal Mohr, and stunning Technicolor.

   It is too bad that somewhere along the way they forgot the mystery, the horror, terror, and for the most part Eric, the Opera Phantom.

   They remembered the opera though.

   Here we have Erique Claudin (Claude Rains), a violinist in the orchestra of the Paris Opera who secretly loves Christine (Susanna Foster), stand-in to vainglorious diva Biacarolli (Jane Farrar), so much so, he has secretly been paying singing master Leo Carillo to train her, But when Claudin loses his job, he needs money, so he takes the music he has written to publisher Miles Mander who dismisses him.

   In his despair and desperation Claudin kills Mander accidentally and scars his own face with acid, fleeing to the sewers which lead beneath the Opera house, there beginning his reign of terror against Biancarolli so that Christine may take her place.

   And all that is well enough if Rains and his Phantom did much more than run around in a costume borrowed from Lamont Cranston, casting a few half-hearted shadows and mostly lurking offscreen unseen and unheard, while we get a parade of some of the finest character actors in Hollywood in what mostly plays as a light opera with way to much comic business between baritone Nelson Eddy and policeman Edgar Barrier fighting over Christine, and far too many operatic numbers.

   The famous chandelier scene is well-handled, and there is a well done chase between Eddy and Rains in the rigging above the stage, but mostly this generates virtually no mystery, no terror, and no horror, no Masque of the Red Death. Even the famous scene of Christine unmasking the Phantom is tossed off with no suspense or style.

   Oh, yeah, he’s disfigured. Ho, hum.

   Rains is largely wasted. The fine cast has to hold a thriller with no thrills and a mystery with no mystery there between too many musical numbers there only to justify Nelson Eddy being cast in the film.

   Just about everything you expect of the Phantom is missing. There is no Gothic atmosphere, no labyrinth sewers beneath the Opera, no menacing shadows, and the violence, when it comes is all done off camera ending anti climatically with Claudin fleeing through the large well lighted halls of the opera dressed like an escapee from Mad Magazine’s Spy vs Spy.

   Seldom in film history has more money been spent to less effect.

   That’s a pity, because the makings were there for a fine film of the classic, if everyone hadn’t been so overcome by the class of the project they forgot it was also a tale of murder, madness, terror, horror, and obsession.


Reflections on Halloween Movies Past
by Jonathan Lewis


   For my Halloween movie viewing this year, I revisited two films that I had previously watched and reviewed for this blog. United Artists’ White Zombie (1932), reviewed here, and Universal’s Werewolf of London (1935), reviewed here.

   Both are films that I had enjoyed and appreciated. Both also were movies that I had the chance to see screened in 35mm here in Los Angeles, the former at UCLA and the latter at Quentin Tarantino’s New Beverly Cinema.

   White Zombie, in which Bela Lugosi plays the ultra-sinister Haitian villain named Murder Legendre, was the first proper zombie movie released by a Hollywood studio. (How zombies went from creations of Haitian voodoo to that of viruses and outbreaks merits a whole different discussion). And Werewolf of London, starring Warner Orland and Henry Hull, was the first proper werewolf movie.

   The movies are, in some ways, clunky by today’s standards. (One might say they were even clunky for their time.) But that doesn’t really matter. While Werewolf of London is a bit more stylish and grounded, both movies have a timeless, nearly dreamlike quality to them.

   They are both, in many ways, fairy tale romances as well. It wasn’t until I watched both consecutively that I realized that, fundamentally, both movies are about doomed love triangles. In both movies, a man ends up sacrificing himself so that the woman he loves could be with her one true love.

TWO LEGENDS [DVE LEGENDY] “Double Standard.” Russian TV, 09 February 2014 (Season 1, Episode 1). 2 hours. Ana Popova, Artem Krylov. Directed by Vyacheslav Kirillov. Currently streaming on Amazon Prime Video.

   Probably because it appeared first on Russian TV, there isn’t a lot of information about this show on Wikipedia (nothing) or IMDb. Here’s how the four-episode mini-series is described on Amazon Prime:

   â€œHe teaches mathematics and she teaches biology. The only thing they have in common is their brilliance: they both speak several languages fluently, have a command of the latest technology, know how to use all kinds of weapons and are trained in the martial arts. These two teachers are, in fact, legendary spies.”

   She is, of course, also beautiful, once she’s out of the classroom and can let her prim everyday facade fade away. As a math teacher, he looks like, well, a math teacher, hiding behind thick-rimmed glasses, à la Clark Kent, but in his spy outfit, he looks like, well, a math teacher.

   In this first episode, they start out not aware of the other’s existence. One is following the trail of an international terrorist, the other tracking the dealing of a notorious financial swindler. When their paths cross, their first meeting is spectacularly lengthy scene of hand to hand combat, not unlike when two Marvel superheroes cross over into the same comic book and have to slug it out for a while before they discover they are on the same side after all.

   The series was a huge hit in Russia, I am told, and I can see why. The plot itself takes second place to the action, action, and more action. The hand-held camera work, even when two people are having a conversation, can make the more susceptible viewer quite dizzy, swooping here and there and back around again. It didn’t bother me, but if you decide to give this one a try, you might want to fasten your seat belts down ahead of time.





CHRISTIANNA BRAND – Death in High Heels. Inspector Charlesworth #1. John Lane/The Bodley Head, UK, hardcover, 1941. Scribner, US, hardcover, 1942. Carroll & Graf, US, paperback, 1989. Film: Marylebone, UK, 1947 (with Don Stannard as Inspector Charlesworth).

   A great title for foot fetishists, but it turns out that footwear has nothing to do with the story. This was Ms. Brand’s debut novel, and does not feature her series detective Inspector Cockrill.

   Miss Doon, one of two chief assistants to a Mr. Bevan (and one of his many bedmates) who owns and operates an exclusive Dress Shop, dies from oxalic poisoning (Oxalic apparently being used to clean hats), and it turns out that most of her associates who had Opportunity for the crime also had Motive. Young Inspector Charlesworth, one of those innumerable upper-class policemen of the “Golden Age” of British Mysteries, is assigned to the case and immediately develops a crush on the chief suspect, a married saleswoman.

   A good example of the Classie British Mystery Novel (though not a great one} with credible characters, some humor — including a chapter where Charlesworth becomes convinced that one of the suspects has killed his (the suspect’s) boyfriend and put his body in a trunk at the Lost and Found – and enough witty dialogue to get over the quiet parts.

— Reprinted from A Shropshire Sleuth #71, May 1995.

      The Inspector Charlesworth series –

Death in High Heels (n.) Lane 1941
Death of Jezebel (n.) Bodley Head 1949 [with Inspector Cockrill]
London Particular (n.) Joseph 1952 [with Inspector Cockrill]
The Rose in Darkness (n.) Joseph 1979



MURDER BY NATURAL CAUSES. Made for TV movie. CBS, 17 February 1979. Running time: 100 minutes. Cast: Hal Holbrook (Arthur Sinclair), Katharine Ross (Allison Sinclair), Barry Bostwick (Gil Weston), Richard Anderson (George Brubaker), Phil Leeds (Eddie), Bill Fiore (Marty Chambers), Victoria Carroll (TV actress). Producers: Richard Levinson, William Link, Robert A. Papazian, and Pattee Roedig. Writers: Richard Levinson and William Link. Director: Robert Day. Released on VHS tape, and currently available on YouTube (see below), but please be aware the picture quality is not all it should be.

   World-famous mentalist Arthur Sinclair has recently suffered a heart attack but now seems to be on the mend. Arthur’s wife Allison dutifully shows her concern, but it’s all for show, as we learn from her intimate frolics with her lover Gil Weston, a struggling actor trying to make it in local theater. When Gil asks Allison why she doesn’t settle for a divorce, she’s not shy about admitting that she is, in her own word, “greedy” and unwilling to take community property or anything less.

   Although Gil balks at killing Arthur, Allison is able to persuade him to go through with her plot to scare her husband to death — that weak heart, remember? — and the plan is set in motion. The thing about trying to pull off a perfect murder, however, is that it never goes as planned, especially when there are other plans that have already been set in motion long ago …

   We’re not going to spoil things by going further with plot details other than to say that you should anticipate having your expectations subverted — often. This is Levinson & Link at the peak of their powers, throwing in no fewer than four major — and ingenious — plot twists in the last third of the story, with the pièce de résistance being that absolutely perfect, devastating final fade-out line.

   As for the cast: Hal Holbrook is still with us at age 95; he’s best remembered for his one-man show about Mark Twain, with side stops in the occasional thriller like They Only Kill Their Masters (1972), Magnum Force (1973), and The Star Chamber (1983).

   Katharine Ross, also still with us, co-starred with Holbrook, James Garner, and some well-trained Dobermans in the aforementioned They Only Kill Their Masters.

   Barry Bostwick, very much alive, would go on to star as the Father of His Country in the George Washington miniseries (1984) and as a very suspicious character in Body of Evidence (1988).

   Richard Anderson — no longer living, alas — managed to accumulate 190 acting credits beginning in 1947, passing away at age 91 several years ago.

   As you might recall, Robert Day, the director, also helmed In Broad Daylight (1971), featured recently on Mystery*File here.

   Equally as good, if not better, was another Levinson & Link puzzler, Rehearsal for Murder (1982), which was highlighted on Mystery*File eight years ago here.

LESLEY EGAN – A Choice of Crimes. Vic Varallo #10. Doubleday Crime Club, hardcover, 1980.

   Filling out the working hours for the detective squad for the city of Glendale, California, are a series of unsolved motel robberies, a rapist whose favorite haunt is a darkened hospital parking lot, various suicides, and all the other many woes of present-day middle-class suburban America.

   Murder is the name of the game, however. According to recent headlines, an incredible 2300 homicides took place in all of Los Angeles County last year, and some of them are bound to have happened even in a quiet place like Glendale. According to this book, it seems to work out to something like one a day, at the least.

   Receiving most of the attention in this shifting mosaic of cases, switching constantly on and off midstream, are the detective series character team of Vic Varallo and Delia Riordan. Their work is not described as overly glamorous. It consists largely of non-stop checking and cross-checking, interviewing, and endless hours of monotonous legwork.

   Resulting from all this intermittent stop-and-go action is a story without a truly cohesive force to hold it together. The only discernible focal point is the one case Riordan is allowed to work on alone, during whatever spare time she can manage, all the while pondering her choice of life’s career.

   We have learned what to expect from Lesley Egan. Her police procedurals are always competent and always told from the Ronald Reagan side of the fence. Although they don’t always win, the cops are unquestionably the heroes here.

Rating: C Plus.

–Very slightly revised from The MYSTERY FANcier, Vol. 5, No. 2, March/April 1981.

Bibliographic Notes: Author Elizabeth Linington (1921-1988) wrote 13 books about Vic Varallo as Lesley Egan, 37 books about Lt. Luis Mendoza as Dell Shannon, 12 books about lawyer Jesse Falkenstein and 13 books about Sgt. Ivor Maddox under her own name, plus 7 standalone mysteries under various of these names.


JARRETT. Made for TV movie, 17 March 1973. Glenn Ford, Anthony Quayle, Forrest Tucker, Laraine Stephens, Yvonne Craig, Richard Anderson. Screenplay: Richard Maibaum. Directed by Barry Shear. Apparently available only on collector-to-collector DVD.

   You don’t get dumber than this made for television pilot released as a feature film. That’s a given.

   Certainly it has more than a little going for it despite its failures. Glenn Ford is Sam Jarrett (a good paper could be written on the number of times Ford played guys named Sam), a former middle weight boxing champ turned private investigator who specializes in rarities, everything from ancient texts to furniture to paintings and comic books (which figure in the plot a bit).

   He’s been hired by a group of scholars to find and authenticate the Book of Adam and Eve, a Biblical text that predates the Dead Sea Scrolls. Also after the scrolls is collector Cosmo Bastrop (Anthony Quayle), an outsized James Bondian villain (not surprising as Richard Maibaum who wrote the screenplay for the early Bond films wrote the teleplay) with a collection of comic book villain assistants and his own private island (Karageorge played by Lee Kolima as a wanna be Odd Job and Joseph Paul Herrera as Ignook Bastrop’s giant Inuit butler).

   The villains, including an Arab in a burnoose and an albino, play like a perverse version of YMCA.

   Bastrop is serious about the scrolls. He already planted a cobra in Jarrett’s Venice Beach home to try to stop him.

   It’s that kind of film.

   Phony Reverend Vocal Simpson (Forrest Tucker) claims to have the scrolls and is founding his church on the idea. When Jarrett shows up at a revival Bastrop is there posing as a film maker trying to buy the rights to the scrolls from Simpson while his men, foiled by Jarrett, try to kidnap Luluwa (Yvonne Craig) who dances naked as Eve with a snake during the revival.

   Next Jarrett heads for Sigrid Larsen (Laraine Stephens) whose father found the original scrolls. She has no idea where they might be but when Bastrop’s men show up all the steal from her home is an old metal frame bed that belonged to her father.

   Shortly after that the scrolls show up in Simpson’s possession only to be brought to Jarrett by Luluwa, but when tested they seem to be fakes.

   Jarrett and Sigrid are led to Bastrop’s island fortress when they figure out Bastrop planted the scrolls on Simpson and faked the test to lead them off the trail. Once there he gives them a tour of his comic book collection (he collects everything) with a special emphasis on his favorite comic book, The Flintstones.

   Leading to the finale when Jarrett in scuba gear returns to the island with a couple of muscle builder friends from Venice Beach as back up to recover the scrolls from Bastrop’s comic book files — guess where?

   Jarrett has one other Bondian trait than being devastating to women, a penchant for gadgets.

   No, it doesn’t make much more sense than that.

   Not for a moment.

   Ford is miscast, Tucker overacts terribly and has some lame line readings, Stephens seems to think she is in a real movie, it all borders on the worst kind of camp …

   And it is for all that, fun in a stupid way, because Ford, Quayle, and Craig all seem to recognize how silly the whole thing is and settle in to have fun. They are relaxed, playful, aware there is nothing they can do to save this, but determined to make it as much fun as they can.

   Whether Maibaum’s teleplay started this bad is another question, because there is some decent dialogue here and there, especially from Quayle’s over the top Bastrop. Maibaum complained the Jarrett role was meant for a much younger actor than Ford and that somehow messed things up, but I can’t see this working just because someone younger than Ford played the lead.

   Frankly the part of this film that halfway works is that Glenn Ford’s easy charm and Anthony Quayle’s playful deliberate over acting along with Yvonne Craig’s campy country seductress they are the only reason to watch this.


FRANCIS L. & ROBERTA FUGATE – Secrets of the World’s Best-Selling Writer. Morrow, hardcover, 1980.

ERLE STANLEY GARDNER – The Human Zero: The Science Fiction Stories of Erle Stanley Gardner, edited by Martin H. Greenberg and Charles G. Waugh. Morrow, hardcover, 1981.

   Erle Stanley Gardner often proudly referred to himself as a fiction factory. The total sales of all the books he ever wrote, in all languages and in all editions, is currently estimated at well over 300 million copies. His isolated ranch near Temecula, California, grew to include twenty-two buildings, designed to house himself, his secretarial staff, and his voluminous, all-inclusive archives.

   All of his earliest writing was done for the “woodpulp” magazines, those ephemeral pieces of popular culture disdained at the time by librarians and the literary establishment alike. The covers were lurid and garish; the contents were written to match. If you were to find an attic filled with them today, you would have a small fortune on your hands.

   By 1933, Erle Stanley Gardner was a household word. Series characters such as Lester Leith, Speed Dash, Ed Jenkins, Senor Lobo, Sidney Zoom, and scores of others were the lifeblood of a list of pulp magazines a page long. In that year alone, Gardner had a total of seventy short stories, novelettes, and articles see print.

   It was also the year that Perry Mason came along. Morrow published The Case of the Velvet Claws in March of that year, and The Case of the Sulky Girl followed in quick order. In 1934 Gardner’s production of short pieces fell off a bit, to something just under forty or so, but to compensate there were three more Mason novels.

   Perry Mason immediately captured the nation’s attention. Originally conceived as a hard-boiled attorney named Ed Stark, straight from the pages of Black Mask magazine, which also gave Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler good running starts on their careers, Mason went on to be the star performer in a total of eighty-five novels.

   They were formula stuff, but Gardner. knew exactly what his readers wanted. Each of the cases culminated in a courtroom scene, with a trial and the future of Mason s client hanging in the balance. Gardner’s own background as a practicing attorney helped provide for some of the trickiest shenanigans ever devised, most of it well beyond the reach, one imagines, of even such superstars of the profession as F. Lee Bailey and Louis Nizer, to name two.

   There were also comic strips, a radio show, and, of course, the long-running Raymond Burr television vehicle, and all had Gardner as the guiding hand.

   Details of Gardner at work – since he was paid by the word for his work for the pulps, he had a gadget on his typewriter that counted off another tally every time he hit the space bar; of his struggle to change his style sufficiently to get the first book published; of his characters (the real reason Della Street never married Perry Mason, for example); and his philosophy of writing (begin with a mystery and tell a story that people want to read) – are all to be found in the Fugate book, published late last year.

   It is based primarily on Gardner’s papers, transferred en masse to the University of Texas upon his death in 1970. In this wealth of material lies a fabulous practical how-to-do-it manual for prospective writers. Gardner’s style was functional, to say the most. In his mysteries he emphasized plot above all, which places him slightly out of step in today’s world, but as of 1979 it is reported that he was still averaging 2,400 sales a day, every day of the year.

   That Gardner also wrote science fiction will probably come as a surprise to many, but in The Human Zero, Gardner’s entire output of fantastic stories is reprinted, all of it from Argosy magazine between 1928 and 1932.

   As science fiction, from today’s perspective, the science in these tales is shaky and the fiction is worse. These seven stories are filled with mad scientists, strange inventions, catastrophic calamities, and bizarre theories of evolution. But in those days between the World Wars, this was the nature of the field, and what Gardner wrote was no worse than any of the rest of it.

   Still, science fiction was obviously not his forte, and he was probably glad to leave it. Perry Mason was his ticket to success, not imaginary flights to Venus in backyard anti-gravity machines.

   In essence, what Greenberg and Waugh give us here in the first of a series planned to resurrect much of Gardner’s work from the “woodpulp” pile, are the skeletons of Gardner’s past. Upcoming books may be better. The stories in The Human Zero were probably better left buried.

–Very slightly revised from The MYSTERY FANcier, Vol. 5, No. 2, March/April 1981.

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