November 2020


BEST LAID PLANS. 20th Century Fox, 1999. Alessandro Nivola, Reese Witherspoon, Josh Brolin. Writer: Ted Griffin. Director: Mike Barker. Available on DVD and currently streaming on HBO/HBO Max.

   For the first hour or so, I thought Best Laid Plans was a rather derivative, but watchable and hip Quentin Tarantino-inspired crime film. Then I started to get much more into the movie, which isn’t that difficult considering the three talented actors whose characters made up the core love triangle in the film. And finally, I ended up frustrated and disillusioned, realizing that (SPOILER ALERT) the entire movie wasn’t simply a deconstruction of film noir tropes, but rather a gimmick. And the simple truth about gimmick movies is this. Once you’ve seen it, you have no desire to ever watch it again.

   Such it is with Best Laid Plans. What becomes a juicy 90s thriller turns into a farce. On paper, it probably sounded good. A small-town loser named Nick (Alessandro Nivola) enlists his girlfriend Lissa (Reese Witherspoon) into an ill-fated scheme in which she will seduce his college buddy Bryce (Josh Brolin). The plan is to falsely accuse Bryce of rape so that the scheming young couple can steal from Bryce. But it all goes horribly wrong. Such is the way in the world of neon-soaked small town desert noir. There are some admittedly good moments in here and Brolin, in particular, disappears into his character.

   That said, it all comes apart in a big way in the last ten minutes. Everything you think you saw was a lie. No, it wasn’t all a dream (another cheap way to ruin a plot). But it’s pretty darn close. Close enough that it doesn’t surprise me that the film apparently did poorly at the box office. It’s a real shame, because the film had a lot going for it. That exceptional cast in particular.



DESERT FURY. Paramount Pictures, 1947. Lizbeth Scott, John Hodiak, Burt Lancaster, Wendell Corey (debut), Mary Astor, James Flavin. Screenplay by Robert Rossen, based on the novel Desert Town by Ramona Stewart (Morrow, 1946), previously serialized as “Bitter Harvest” in Collier’s from November 24 to December 8, 1945. Director: Lewis Allen. Available on DVD.

   Paula (Lizbeth Scott) is the spoiled daughter (she’s supposed to be nineteen but seems much older) of controlling casino (The Purple Sage) owner Fritzi (Mary Astor) who tries to run her the way she does the little desert town of Chuckawalla, Nevada. She’s just run away from another boarding school tired of being looked down on because of what her Mother does, yet defiant enough to want to be part of the business.

Deputy Tom Hansen (Burt Lancaster walking into Fritiz’s office): The wages of sin.

Fritzi (counting money): Are very high.

   Complicating things are the arrival of handsome gambler Eddie Bendix (John Hodiak) whose wife died in a mysterious accident years earlier and his dangerous too devoted stooge Johnny (Wendell Corey in his film debut), and washed up rodeo star turned local deputy Tom Hansen (Burt Lancaster) who is attracted to Paula too and still suspicious of the way Bendix wife died.

   When Fritzi’s meddling and Tom’s suspicions drives Paula into Eddie’s arms complications ensue.

   You couldn’t have much better Film Noir bona fides than this cast, screenwriter Robert Rossen, or director Lewis Allen, and the film is handsomely shot on location and set in color. But despite that, despite the mystery and the broken characters, Desert Fury is more soap opera than Film Noir, Gothic fiction in rancheros and with cactus instead of brooding castles on crumbling cliffs, but Gothic romance for all that.

   The film is attractive, and entertaining, but it never quite evolves into the promise of genuine noir. Maybe it’s because Hodiak’s Bendix is so obviously a bad ’un (no Maxim de Winter he, “He’s no good … you think I brought you up for the likes of Eddie Bendix … I’d rather see you dead first.”) and Lancaster’s Tom so obviously the wounded hero of a thousand Gothic novels from Jane Eyre to Rebecca.

   Corey’s Johnny, with his sinister slightly perverse devotion to Eddie and his threat of violence to anyone who might cross Eddie or come between them, is the most noirish element in the film, and Corey, self assured in his debut, cannily underplays it avoiding any temptation to compete with Van Heflin’s Oscar winning debut in the similar role opposite Robert Taylor in Johnny Eager. The undercurrents here are just that, undercurrents.

Johnny: People think they’ve been seeing Eddie, and they’ve really been seeing me. I’m Eddie Bendix.

   If a single character was enough to make a film noir, Corey’s Johnny would qualify.

   When Eddie chooses Paula over Johnny it brings things to a head and we learn the real secret of Eddie’s wife’s accident and what Eddie has been hiding.

Paula: I hope you never get finished with me.

Eddie: Why?

Paula: I’d hate to be left on a desert road at night with my luggage.

Eddie: Keep it in mind.

   Gorgeously shot in Technicolor and well written with a lush Miklos Rosza score, Desert Fury is an entertaining Gothic, but it isn’t the Film Noir it wants to be. Its dark secrets are those of romantic fiction and not Noir, its perversions those of soap opera and not existential angst. The big revelation that Eddie and Paula’s mother were once an item is still more soap than noir.

   Even the tough guy stuff between Hodiak and Lancaster is half-hearted at best.

   As Paula starts to find out who Eddie is and the truth pours out of Johnny when Eddie abandons him the tension rises (“.. he’s never been able to take the rap.”). It builds to a suspenseful finale, and if taken as the Gothic fiction decked out as Film Noir it is the film does not disappoint, but it really isn’t quite Noir however much it tries to wear the look and feel.

Paula: There was no Eddie Bendix. Everything that people thought was Eddie Bendix was Johnny.

   You could almost say the same of Desert Fury. It really isn’t Film Noir. Everything you think is Film Noir isn’t, but accept it for what it is, and it more than does the job.

NCIS: LOS ANGELES “The Bear.” CBS, 08 November 2020 (Season 12, Episode 1.) Chris O’Donnell (G. Callen), Daniela Ruah (Kensi Blye), Eric Christian Olsen (Marty Deeks), Renée Felice Smith (Nell Jones), Medalion Rahimi (Special Agent Fatima Namazi), Caleb Castille (Devin Roundtree), Linda Hunt (Hetty Lange), LL Cool J (Sam Hanna). Director: Dennis Smith. Currently available streaming on CBS All Access.

   I’ll start out by apologizing to you by not identifying the role each of the actors above portray in this long-running spinoff from its home base show, NCIS, which of course has been around quite a bit longer. (The latter is now starting its 17th season.) I assume it’s deliberate, but while there’s the same sense on collegiality of the two groups of players, but the story lines for this secondary series has always been a lot more action-oriented: lots more scenes out of doors with planes, helicopters and guns, for example.

   I’ve not been able to watch this show in several years, ever since pulling the cord on all network programming several years ago, until I spotted that the 12th season (only) is offered with no extra charge on CBS All Access. Many of the actors involved were therefor new to me; they all seem to be part of the regular crew, however.

   â€œThe Bear” of the title is a Russian fighter plane that seems to have come down somewhere along California’s Pacific Coast. Where exactly it is, and why it’s there is the mystery that the gang have to solve.

   And I’m sorry to say that the story line isn’t the best that this series has had to offer, but considering the fact that it was filmed in not the best of conditions, a world-wide pandemic, perhaps the people in charge can be forgiven. Linda Hunt as Hetty Lange, the group’s leader, for example, is seen only on closed circuit TV, placing lightweight computer geek Nell Jones in charge, and the latter apparently having retired from the group in a previous season, is for all practical purposes in over her head.

   And otherwise the story is badly paced, with some scenes played for humor going on too long, and others chopped off with little or no explanation, including, unfortunately, the ending. It all ends well, mind you, with no unexpected TO BE CONTINUED flashing on the screen, as quite often happens when I watch a show at random to watch.

   And dare I say it, and this has nothing to do with the virus, but all the players look at least five years older since I last watched the series, five years ago. But even so, it felt good and at home in the world to see them back in action again.


MURRAY SINCLAIR – Tough Luck L.A. Ben Crandel #1. Pinnacle, paperback original, 1980. Black Lizard Books, paperback, 1988.

   It’s been a while since I read this one. If it weren’t for the notes I made while reading it, l don’t think I’d remember any of it at all. What makes this so surprising, to me at least, is that I’ve always been partial to novels about hack Hollywood writers and rundown private eyes, and I was really looking forward to this one.

   Anyway. Ben Crandel is the hack writer , making do with cheap porno novels (are there any other kind?) as his movie-writing career seems to be going nowhere fast. Then a friend of his, an ex-prostitute named Vicky, is found murdered, and he’s forced to pick up a new sideline, that of amateur detective. Crandel talks snotty to some ultrasensitive cops, however , and he’s immediately tossed into jail for a while.

   There is also some business about a tontine. I thought they’d been written off as a plot device long ago. Complications are provided by a complex set of family relationships which I admit I never did figure out, and the whole affair is about as crazy as any pulp novel that’s ever been published.

   Which, for those of us who dote on such stuff, might have worked out as a huge plus. Dashed with the appropriate amounts of cynicism, there’d have been hopes for this story yet. The cynicism is contrived and phony, however, and the pace, which starts out slow and then becomes even slower, never manages to pick up any traction at all.

   According to my notes, this is how I felt about it a couple of weeks ago: “Except for one unbelievably imaginative sex scene, the book fairly crackles with boredom.”

   In retrospect, I don’t think it was that bad, but what you could say is that it certainly didn’t match my expectations.

         Rating: D

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


      The Ben Crandel series —

Tough Luck L.A. Pinnacle 1980
Only in L.A. A&W 1982
Goodbye, L.A. Black Lizard 1988

   Here’s a short time out from regular blogging to tell you my latest vintage mystery hardcover list, all from the 1970s and before, is ready for viewing. These books are priced as they are on Amazon, but if you buy from me directly, take 30 percent off:

         Vintage Hardcovers

   Thanks for looking!



EXILE EXPRESS. Grand National, 1939. Anna Sten, Alan Marshal, Jerome Cowan, Walter Catlett, Leonid Kinskey, Irving Pichel, Harry Davenport, Feodor Chaliapin, Byron Foulger, Vince Barnett, and George Chandler. Written by Ethel La Blanche and Edwin Justus Mayer. Directed by Otis Garrett.  Currently available on YouTube here.

   A star on her way down, a studio on its way out, a movie that ain’t bad.

   Anna Sten was imported to this country by Sam Goldwyn, who saw her as another Garbo. Problem was, we already had one, and after three flops, Ms Sten was cast loose in the film industry, where she continued to work at fitful intervals into the 1960s. Exile Express was her first film in three years and a far cry from the lush work of Goldwyn.

   Grand National was a scrappy little “B” outfit with an eye out for novelty. They snagged James Cagney at the height of his popularity (and in the middle of a contract spat with Warners) for two films, but lost him when they passed up Angels with Dirty Faces for a limp musical that was nothing to sing about. Undaunted, Grand National went for the ready-made publicity of Heavyweight Champ Joe Louis (Spirit of Youth) Lamont Cranston (The Shadow, with silent star Rod LaRocque) and Doctor Robert E Cornish’s home-movie footage showing him supposedly restoring a dead dog to life (Life Returns) which left the lovely Anna Sten literally following a dog act on the bill.

   Withall, nevertheless, and notwithstanding, Exile Express is pretty good: mostly light and inconsequential, but a few moments stick in the critical conscience like venial sins. Ms Sten plays a refugee, and when she speaks of her plans to become a US citizen, she conveys real feeling. Then, of course, the plot rears its banal head; she’s working for a scientist engaged in top-secret research, and when he’s killed and his notes stolen, she falls under suspicion. Acquitted of any crime, he is ordered deported on general principles and put aboard a train from San Francisco to Ellis Island — hence the title Exile Express.

   The rest is mostly sub-Hitchcock, with the train hurtling across the Land of the Free while Enemy Agents try to sneak her off — it seems they need her to fill in the gaps in those stolen notes — and a handsome young reporter takes a bemused interest in the whole thing. We get the usual complement of colorful characters and comic interludes, well-played by reliables with faces you never forget and names you never remember, but there’s also a quiet moment on the train when a gangster being kicked out of the country brags about how big he’ll be back in the Old Country, then falls sadly silent as he looks out the window and sees America passing by.

   I should also put in a word for George Chandler as a gawky near-bridegroom replaced at the last minute by the handsome hero. Chandler had a pivotal part in what is undoubtedly and beyond debate the greatest film ever made (The Fatal Glass of Beer) and he uses his typecast sincerity to here to excellent comic effect.

   This was the last film from Grand National, and if it didn’t go out with a bang, it was at least more swan song than whimper.


      Played by the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra:


ALAN E. NOURSE – The Universe Between. Paperback Library 52-462, paperback, 1967. Prior hardcover edition: David McKay, 1965. Expansion of stories “High Threshold” and “The Universe Between” (Astounding SF, March 1951 and September 1951, respectively.) Ace, paperback, 1987. Cover of PL edition probably by Jack Gaughan.

   This novel consists of two major parts, probably corresponding to the two stories indicated above. The first concerns the attempt to construct a transmatter, necessary for the economic survival of the world. Somehow a model under construction bridges the gap to a parallel world, through the fourth dimension, and threatens it with destruction.

   Agreement with the inhabitants of the Other Side brings the galaxy within reach, but in the second art of the book, complete communication with them is needed to solve problems arising from he existence of infinitely many parallel worlds.

   Nourse is quite clearly familiar with engineering methods, as well as science in general, which probably explains the many outstanding reviews by libraries and school journals found on the covers. As is to be expected, attempts to describe the fourth dimension fall short, but they make interesting reading. The value of the switch ending is debatable, but there is no doubt it is valid.

Rating: 3 stars

– June 1967

BATTLESTAR GALACTICA. “Saga of a Star World.” ABC, 17 September 1978. Pilot episode; three hours. Richard Hatch (Captain Apollo), Dirk Benedict (Lieutenant Starbuck), Lorne Greene (Commander Adama), Herbert Jefferson Jr. (Lieutenant Boomer), Tony Swartz (Flight Sergeant Jolly), Maren Jensen (Lieutenant Athena). Others: John Colicos, Ray Milland, Lew Ayres. Writer: Glen A. Larson. Director: Richard A. Colla.

   If you asked a random person about Battlestar Galactica, they likely would either think of the late 1970s television series or the highly successful reboot from the early 2000s. That is, of course, if they had ever heard of the show at all. But few probably remember that Battlestar Galactica started neither as a tv show, nor as a franchise. Rather, the saga began as a lengthy made for television movie meant to capitalize on the Star Wars craze.

   Aired on ABC on September 17, 1978, the production was interrupted mid-broadcast with news of the signing of the Israeli-Egyptian peace accords. Later released both as a theatrical film and as a three-part TV series entitled “Saga of a Star World,” the movie piggybacked on the success of George Lucas’s Star Wars (1977) and likewise combined mystical fantasy with hard science fiction.

   For those unfamiliar with the basic plot, it suffices to say that it’s a story about a group of humans living in distant space who must outrun a hostile robotic enemy (the Cylons) on their way to Earth. Commanded by the stern but fair Adama (Lorne Greene), the Battlestar Galactica is itself a ship (a battle starship). Among its best fighter pilots are Adama’s son Captain Apollo (Richard Hatch) and the maverick Starbuck (Dirk Benedict). Their chief enemies, at least in the pilot, are two human traitors. The scheming and sleazy Count Baltar (John Colicos) and the decadent Sire Uri (Ray Milland). Lew Ayres also appears as the president.

   I am not sure if I ever watched the three-part pilot before. Some of it seemed deeply familiar to me. Other parts less so. As much as I enjoyed the nostalgia value of the show, I couldn’t help but notice how slow-moving a lot of the pilot was. While there was certainly some excitement at the beginning, the movie bogs down into a rather talky meandering affair. That said, it certainly perks up again in the last forty minutes or so with a fun and exciting tale of wicked aliens seducing humanity into a gambling den slumber. The special effects, for the time, were quite good. And the music, conducted by Stu Phillips of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, is iconic. I’m just fairly sure no one who watched it in 1978 would have thought it would be rebooted two decades later for a new generation.



ELLIS PETERS – Black Is the Color of My True-Love’s Heart. Felse family # 7. Collins, UK, hardcover, 1967. Morrow, US, hardcover, 1967. Mysterious Press, US, paperback, 1992.

   Dominic Felse, son of Detective Inspector George Felse, and his girl fiend Tossa Barbar, are attending a folk music seminar at a neo-Gothic mansion called Follymead. Its director is Edward Arundale, who lives there with his wife. Arundale, however, plans to be away the weekend of the folkmusic seminar.

   Among the music stars attending is the popular Lucian Galt, but an unexpected guest is female folk singer Uri Palmer, who recently split up with Lucien. On the first night she sings a variation on the old folk song that is the novel’s title. The next afternoon, Uri and Lucien (as well as Dominic and Tossa) elect to remain at Follymead rather then go on one of the guided tours of the area.

   Walking around the grounds, Dominic and Tossa come to the area near the river where Felicity, Arundale’s niece who had a crush on Lucien, had left him. They discover signs of a struggle and decide to contact Dominic’s father, who comes down to do a quiet investigation. The next day a body is pulled from the water but it isn’t Lucien’s; it’s Arundale’s.

   I’ve never had the urge to read any of the Medieval mysteries that raised Ms. Peters to the top rung of mystery writers. However, I’ve read a couple of the early Felse novels, and enjoyed them. This one was fun, even though I figured out the solution well before the end.

— Reprinted from The Hound of Dr. Johnson #18, March 2002.

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