May 2021

LAWRENCE BLOCK – The Burglar in the Closet. Bernie Rhodenbarr #2. Random House, hardcover, 1978. Pocket, paperback, August 1981. Film: Warner, 1987, as Burglar (starring Whoopi Goldberg).

   In close cahoots with his dentist, who somehow has discovered how Bernie makes a living, the latter attempts to burgle the former’s ex-wife. Intended target: a small fortune in jewelry. And all is going well until the lady comes home. What’s worse, she’s not alone. A man who is obviously one the lady’s lovers is with her, and Bernie is stuck – no, worse, locked – in the lady’s bedroom closet.

   And even worse, could that be possible, when the lover has left, there is another knock on her apartment door. This visitor, as it so happens, is a killer, with Bernie, you guessed it, still locked in the closet. It is a ticklish situation, to say the least.

   With the help of the dentist’s cuddly hygenist, Bernie decides that the only way to clear himself from being arrested for the crime is to find the killer himself. This of course he does, or there wouldn’t have been a whole series of additional murders to solve, there being to date nine more over the years.

   But what has made the series such a smashing success over all those years is Lawrence Block’s consistently witty and often irreverent way of telling Bernie’s tales, told by the latter in first person. But after such a smash of an opening act in this one, the detective work sags a little in the middle stanza, but in a “gather all the suspects together at the end” type of finale, both Block and Bernie demonstrate that the reader who hadn’t been paying attention really should have been. The biggest clue of all is right in front of your face as a reader, and mine is red, too.

   Even after reading quite a few of Bernie’s adventures, I still don’t know who I’d cast for the role, be it either TV or another movie. Not Robert Redford. Not Elliott Gould. Not Tom Cruise. But who? Certainly not Whoopi Goldberg.

by Francis M. Nevins


   With very little to occupy my time during the pandemic I started to ask myself a less than burning question: What was the worst TV detective series of your childhood? Well, after a few seconds of thought I concluded that there were three that tie for bottom rung of the ladder.


All three date from the same period, the very early 1950s when my parents and millions of other Americans were buying their first sets, so I’ll ignore strict chronology and begin with the one whose roots go back farthest in time. CRAIG KENNEDY, CRIMINOLOGIST was based on the scientific supersleuth character created early in the 20th century by Arthur B. Reeve (1880-1936).

   There were several Kennedy movies, the last being a cheapjack 15-chapter cliffhanger serial, THE CLUTCHING HAND (Stage & Screen, 1936), which starred Jack Mulhall and Rex Lease as Kennedy and his newsman sidekick Walter Jameson. Fifteen years after that picture and after Reeve’s death, its producer, Louis Weiss (1890-1963), decided to dip his toes into the waters of TV with an equally cheapjack Kennedy series, starring Donald Woods as the scientific guru and Lewis Wilson, the screen’s first Batman, as Jameson

   The first 13 episodes were apparently shot in late 1950 and ‘51, most if not all of them scripted in whole or with a collaborator by B movie veteran Ande Lamb and directed by Harry Fraser (1889-1974), a bottom-of-the-barrel hack if ever there was one. The entire baker’s dozen featured overlapping casts including such long-forgotten thespians as Bob Curtis, Tom Hubbard, William Justine and Stanley Waxman, supplemented by some actors familiar to watchers of Forties B movies and Fifties TV—Ted Adams, Lane Bradford, Stephen Chase, Milburn Morante, Glenn Strange—plus a few who made their mark in TV later, like Phyllis Coates (the small screen’s first Lois Lane) and Jack Kruschen.

   Featured in several casts was none other than Jack Mulhall (1887-1979), who had played Kennedy in that 1936 serial but at several years over sixty was obviously too old for the part in the TV series. In what was apparently the pilot episode, “The Golden Dagger” (1950), the star of the next in our triad of terrible series, Ralph Byrd, played a character known as —remember that name, B western fans?—Rocky Lane. Most if not all of the second set of 13 episodes were directed by the producer’s son Adrian Weiss (1918-2001) and also scripted by Ande Lamb.

   In England at least nine so-called movies, each consisting of two series episodes, were released theatrically by Anglo-Amalgamated Film Distributors Ltd. “It is to be hoped,” said the British Film Institute’s monthly bulletin, commenting on a member of the ennead, “that even the least discriminating film-goer has the intuition to avoid seeing films as remarkably badly made as this one.” Those masochistic enough to want to sample the series for themselves may check out a few clips and at least one complete episode, “The Case of Fleming Lewis” (1951), on YouTube.


DICK TRACY, the second of our terrible trio, also goes back a long way, specifically to the comic-strip cop created in 1931 by Chester Gould. Ralph Byrd (1909-1952) was best known in Hollywood for having portrayed the square-jawed sleuth in four classic Republic serials (1937-41) and two RKO features dating from 1947.

   Three years later, when the TV series was launched, he was the obvious choice for the part. The role of his comic-strip sidekick Sam Catchem went to Runyonesque character actor Joe Devlin. Several other characters from the strip—Tess Trueheart, Junior, Diet Smith, B.O. Plenty, Gravel Gertie—appeared off and on in various episodes.

   Accurate information about the TV Tracy is hard to come by. A number of websites and even Garyn G. Roberts’ DICK TRACY AND AMERICAN CULTURE: MORALITY AND MYTHOLOGY, TEXT AND CONTEXT (McFarland, 2003) claim that the series consisted of 26 episodes whereas in fact there were 39. The first episodes were broadcast on the ABC network in the fall of 1950 but the series soon switched to a syndicated basis. My best guess is that it began with 26 segments, several of them in two installments, one in four, one in five.

   Most of them were scripted by original series producer P.K. Palmer and directed by either of two men, one a nonentity, the other a Hollywood household name. Willard H. Sheldon (1906-1998) was a career assistant director who aside from his TRACY episodes helmed almost nothing else.

   His major contribution, if that’s the word, was “Dick Tracy and the Brain,” a 5-part story in which Tracy pursues an underworld genius (Lyle Talbot) whose real name, true to Chester Gould’s nomenclatural principles, is B.R. Ayne. On the other hand, B. Reeves Eason (1886-1956) had directed some of the most spectacular action footage in film history: the chariot race in the silent BEN-HUR (1926), the climactic CHARGE OF THE LIGHT BRIGADE (1936), the Burning of Atlanta sequence in GONE WITH THE WIND (1939). Even with the rock-bottom budgets and laughable working conditions on TRACY, we might have hoped for more from him. Hard cheese.

   The four-part “Dick Tracy and the Mole,” pitting Byrd against grizzled old B Western sidekick Raymond Hatton in the part of a master criminal who can’t stand light and roosts underground, is next to unwatchable. The two-parter ”Dick Tracy and Flattop,” in which Byrd’s adversary is a hit man hired to kill him by crime kingpin Namgib (another name in the Chester Gould tradition), is no improvement.

   If nothing else, Eason’s TRACY episodes, apparently the only TV work he was ever credited with, confirms the wisdom of Sherlock Holmes’s famous dictum “I can’t make bricks without clay.”

   Later segments including most if not all of the final 13 tended to be complete in 30 minutes. The scripts, written by established pulp crime writers like Robert Leslie Bellem, Dwight Babcock and Todhunter Ballard, included some character names squarely in the Gould tradition, like the murderer Phil Graves in “The Case of the Dangerous Dollars.”

   The directors of these episodes tended to have roots in B Westerns, foremost among them Thomas Carr (1907-1997), who helmed three two-parters and at least five singletons. I got to know Tommy and tape extensively with him when he was in his eighties but I either didn’t know or had forgotten how heavily he’d been involved with TRACY in the dawn years of TV and didn’t ask him to reminisce about the series. (That sound you just heard was a swift kick in the rear, administered to me by me.)

   Watching Tommy’s surviving episodes, I sense him struggling to inject a minim of visual quality under impossible circumstances. “Shaky’s Secret Treasure” is unique in that, thanks to the meticulous records kept by actor Dabbs Greer, who played Shaky, we know precisely when Tommy filmed it: on January 22 and 23, 1952, which means it was one of the final 13 segments. Greer’s salary, in case anyone’s interested, was $75 a day.

   The series ran regularly on various local stations at least through the mid-Fifties, and a number of episodes—the 4-part “Mole,” the 2-part “B.B. Eyes” and at least four stand-alone segments—can be seen on YouTube. Ralph Byrd didn’t last anywhere near that long. While on vacation soon after TRACY wrapped, he died of a heart attack, on 18 August 1952, at age 43. Like Basil Rathbone with Holmes and Bogart with Sam Spade, he’s remembered long after his death for the character he incarnated.


   Dating from the same time frame as KENNEDY and TRACY was FRONT PAGE DETECTIVE, a 39-episode series produced by small-screen pioneer Jerry Fairbanks (1904-1995), first broadcast on the short-lived Dumont network in 1951 and rerun times without number on local stations throughout the rest of the Fifties.

   Alone among our trio, this one didn’t have a pedigree. The title came from a pulp true-crime magazine but its protagonist, café-society columnist and amateur detective David Chase—described as a sleuth with “an eye for the ladies, a nose for news, and a sixth sense for danger”—was created especially for TV.

   â€œPresenting an unusual story of love and mystery!” the unseen announcer would purr in dulcet tones at the start of each episode. His introduction concluded with: “And now for another thrilling adventure as we accompany David Chase and watch him match wits with those who would take the law into their own hands.”

   Starring as Chase was one-time matinee idol Edmund Lowe (1892-1971), a name familiar to moviegoers for a third of a century before his entry into television. During the 1920s he specialized in suave romantic roles complete with waxed mustache, but the biggest boost in his film career came when director Raoul Walsh cast him opposite Victor McLaglen in WHAT PRICE GLORY? (Fox, 1926), first of the Captain Flagg-Sergeant Quirt military comedies.

   His foremost contribution to the detective film came ten years later when he portrayed Philo Vance in THE GARDEN MURDER CASE (MGM, 1936), but he also played a New York plainclothesman of the 1890s opposite Mae West in EVERY DAY’S A HOLIDAY (Paramount, 1938).

   By the early 1950s Lowe had begun to show his age, and in FRONT PAGE DETECTIVE he looked all too convincingly like a man of almost sixty who’s determined to pass himself off as 25 years younger. In many an episode he’d romance the woman in the case, rattle off a few deductions—once he reasoned that a letter supposedly from an Englishwoman was a forgery because the writer used the U.S. spelling “check” rather than the British “cheque”—and then collar the villain personally after a pistol battle or fistfight underscored by Lee Zahler’s background music for Mascot and early Republic serials.

   Supporting Lowe were Paula Drew as Chase’s fashion-designer girlfriend and crusty George Pembroke as the inevitable stupid cop. Appearing in individual episodes were such stalwarts of TV’s pioneer days as Joe Besser, Rand Brooks, Maurice Cass, Jorja Curtright, Jonathan Hale, Frank Jenks and Lyle Talbot.

   As with KENNEDY and TRACY, filming was 99% indoors, on some of the cheapest sets ever seen by the televiewer’s eye except perhaps for those used by the other members of our trio.

   The director of every episode I’ve seen recently was Fairbanks’ production supervisor Arnold Wester (1907-1976), who is not known to have directed anything else afterward. And just as well: apparently his idea of directing was to make sure the camera was pointed at the actors and leave the set.

   Many scripts were by veterans of pulp detective magazines and radio like Robert Leslie Bellem (also, as we’ve seen, a TRACY veteran) and Irvin Ashkenazy, with an occasional contribution by Curt Siodmak, author of the classic horror novel DONOVAN’S BRAIN.

   At least nine episodes of the series are accessible on YouTube. The rest seem to have vanished but their gimmicks can often be deduced from the brief descriptions in crumbling issues of TV Guide.

   In “The Case of the Perfect Secretary” Chase tries to find out why Dr. Owens, the inventor of a synthetic cortisone, didn’t show up for a scheduled lecture. He finds Owens’ laboratory deserted and later discovers that the doctor has been murdered, the letter M imprinted on his forehead. It takes no Charlie Chan to figure out that the M is most likely a W.

   â€œHoney for Your Tea” finds Chase looking into the claim of a young actress that her fiancé was brutally murdered by her dramatic coach (Maurice Cass), a gnarled and crippled old man whose hobby is beekeeping. Anyone want to bet that this isn’t the old bee-venom poisoning shtick?

   In “The Other Face” Chase investigates the death of a handsome actor who “accidentally” fell from his penthouse terrace shortly after telling his psychiatrist of his desire to fall through space. If the murder victim didn’t turn out to be not the actor but his look-alike understudy, toads fly.

   Other episodes seem to have more intriguing storylines. In “Napoleon’s Obituary” a man named for Bonaparte dies the day after asking Chase to write his death notice, and the trail leads our sleuth to a house whose inhabitants are all named after historic figures.

   In “Ringside Seat for Murder” Chase witnesses a bizarre murder during a wrestling match where one of the athletes (using the term loosely) is stabbed in the back with a poisoned dart while pinned to the mat by his opponent.

   FRONT PAGE DETECTIVE never pretended to be a classic, but for all its clichés and Grade ZZZ production values it was, like KENNEDY and TRACY, a pioneering effort in tele-detection that deserves perhaps a wee bit more than to be totally forgotten.



36 HOURS TO KILL. 20th Century Fox, 1936. Brian Donlevy, Gloria Stuart, Douglas Fowley, Isabel Jewell, Warren Hymer, Stepin Fetchit, James Burke. Based on a story by W. R. Burnett. Directed by Eugene Forde. Released commercially on DVD.

Anne Marvis (Gloria Stuart): So this is Albuquerque?

Frank Evers (Brian Donlevy) There’s no Indians.

Anne: They’re all working for the WPA.

Frank: What a relief.

   Get it?

   That’s the wise cracking speed of the humor in this not quite a mystery comedy, that still manages to pack quite a bit of screwball into the tale of a Public Enemy on the run and a blooming romance on a train from Los Angeles to Topeka that accompanies his journey.

   Alvin Karpis has just met his rendezvous with J. Edgar Hoover, the headlines proclaim, while Duke Benson (Douglas Fowley) sweats out hiding in the suburbs of LA with his moll/wife Jeanie (Isabel Jewell) while flunky Hazy (Warren Hymer) makes house calls to deliver the news.

   This time he brings a newspaper from home, Topeka, with him and Duke spies in the paper that a mysterious lottery winner who signed himself Little Boy Blue has won $150,000, and Duke is Little Boy Blue, the winning ticket in his wallet. Just one problem: How will he ever cash it in with the Feds everywhere looking for him?

   Duke comes up with a plan. Jeanie will fly to Topeka since it is dangerous for them to travel with each other, and after arranging with his old gang for a place to hide out once there, Duke will book tickets on the train, Hazy getting on board first, and Duke making a daring transfer from a moving car in the dark as the train is still moving slow. Then Duke will hideout in his compartment for the rest of the trip.

   Complicating things at the train station is reporter Frank Evers, who is hounding a man he claims is a famous scientist he has to get a story on so desperately he buys a ticket to come along, a little girl traveling by herself who takes a shine to Hazy, and boarding at the first stop, Anne Mavis, an attractive blonde fleeing process server James Burke until she can cross over into Arizona.

   When Duke has to leave his compartment for annoying porter Stepin Fetchit to make his bed Anne, hiding from the process server, climbs in Duke’s unoccupied bed, and in true screwball style mistaken for Duke’s wife by the process server, but not by Evers who has already cozied up to Duke.

   Later still Jeanie, when her plane is forced down by a storm, will join the train finding Anne’s gloves in Duke’s compartment and jumping to conclusions so Anne has to pretend to be Frank’s wife to appease Jeannie’s insane jealousy, not really all that insane considering Duke’s proclivities and designs on Anne and how handy Jeanie is with a knife.

   And when they reach Topeka and Duke realizes the Feds are hot on his trail when the porter finds a microphone in his compartment (“Dat one of them new telephones, Mr.?”) things get really complex when he kidnaps Anne and takes her to the phony sanitarium run by his former gang and Frank has to rescue her by posing as the agent from the Insurance Agent paying the lottery ticket off to Duke’s lawyer (Charles Lane).

   Mostly the movie crackles, It speeds along, pauses for laughs, develops just enough character to keep you interested, and relies on the considerable skills of Donlevy, Stuart, Fowley, Hymer, and Jewell to keep things sparking as nothing and no one is exactly who they seem to be and complications arise. Almost every main character has a revelation to make that isn’t exactly what you expect, though one of them is pretty obvious no mater how hard I try to avoid giving it away.

   It might not seem Black Mask material, but you can imagine it i5n Dime Detective or Detective Fiction Weekly. It’s the kind of story you can imagine Richard Sale, Robert Reeves, John K. Butler, or Dwight Babcock might have written.

   Admittedly there is the always nagging problem in films of this era of the role Stepin Fetchit plays, mostly comedic relief as he infuriates Duke, but also fairly important to the plot in that his clumsiness is set up so he finds the microphone that tips Duke off he is being followed.

   Hymer’s Hazy is an odd character too, very much as if a Damon Runyon character had wandered into a Warner’s Gangster flick, his scenes with the little girl quite effecting, and his pride in having made a prune whip for the captive Anne even sweet.

   The ending as you might expect is slam bang, with guns blazing, but who gets shot by whom and why may surprise you.

   Plus I am a sucker for stories like this on a train, and if the finale isn’t on the train, the trip itself is a delight, and the cast fine companions for any journey. This is little gem I only saw for the first time recently, and never heard about, but will no doubt watch again.



SUNDOWN IN SANTA FE. Republic Pictures, 1948. Allan ‘Rocky’ Lane, Eddy Waller, Roy Barcroft, Trevor Bardette, Jean Dean. Director: R. G. Springsteen.

   B-westerns get no respect. They’re seldom listed in any of the various video guides or other standard reference books. Mysteries of the same vintage and caliber seem to be included, even with the same production values and indifferent plots, but not the movies of Rocky Lane, Lash LaRue, or Sunset Carson. Not even the films of Roy Rogers, the King of the Cowboys himself. And hey, come on, they’re not that bad.

   To remedy that, to some small minor extent, I’m going to be including a few of them from time to time in these pages. Not a lot of them. Only the ones I watch, and if I watch too many of them, my mind will turn to mush, if I can say that without spoiling the point I was making, but what else can I say?

   The opening scenes are very promising. Armed robberies that are taking place near and about Santa Fe are linked by the discovery of similar daggers at the site of each, suggesting that somehow or another Walter Durant, leader of the Lincoln conspiracy ring, is involved. Rocky is sent in as an undercover investigator to find out exactly what is going on.

   There’s very little mystery to the affair, however, as it turns out, since the son of the sheriff that Rocky goes to work for soon shows his true colors. He’s in love with the daughter of the rancher who is running the gang, although the man (as it turns out) is not really the mastermind behind it all. While the secret identity if that man is no secret either, at least to the audience, it takes Rocky most of the picture to figure it out.

   There’s plenty of action, but there’s also too much plot for such a relatively short feature, and details of what’s happening (and why) soon get swamped in the desire to get the story over with in its allotted amount of running time. While Rocky is ruggedly handsome, there’s no love interest for him at all, and maybe that’s why as a kid, I liked his movies so much. No gooey, gloppy stuff for him, at least not in this one.

– Slightly revised from Mystery*File #30, April 1991.


NOTE: I first read this book in 2006, and this review was first posted in June 2009. I’ve just read the book again, but instead of writing a new review, I’ve decided to re-post this old one.

DAVID DODGE – Shear the Black Sheep.   Popular Library 202, paperback reprint; no date stated, but circa 1949. Hardcover edition: The Macmillan Co., 1942. Magazine appearance: Cosmopolitan, July 1942.

   After I finished reading this, the second murder mystery adventure of accountant detective Jim “Whit” Whitney, I went researching as I usually do, and it didn’t come as any surprise to learn (from a website devoted to David Dodge) that Dodge was also a CPA by profession, and that he started writing mystery fiction only on a dare from his wife.

   Although Dodge went on to another series (one with private eye Al Colby) and after that several standalones, there were only four books in the Whit Whitney series, to wit:

Death and Taxes. Macmilllan, hc, 1941. Popular Library 168, pb, 1949.


Shear the Black Sheep. Macmillan, hc, 1942. Popular Library 202, pb, 1949.

Bullets for the Bridegroom. Macmillan, hc, 1944. Popular Library 252, pb, 1950.


It Ain’t Hay. Simon & Schuster, hc, 1946. Dell 270, pb, mapback edition, 1949.


   You can find much more detailed entries for each of these books at the David Dodge website, which includes a complete bibliography of all of his other books, both fiction and non-fiction. Not to mention his plays, his magazine stories, the articles he wrote and all of the radio, TV and movie adaptations of his work, the most well-known of which is To Catch a Thief, the Cary Grant and Grace Kelly film from 1955. Comprehensive is an understatement, and it’s definitely worth looking into, just to see a bibliography done right.

   As for Whit Whitney, his home base is San Francisco, but in Shear the Black Sheep he is talked into taking a case in Los Angeles over the New Year’s Eve holiday weekend. Against his better judgment, he agrees to check into the activities of a client’s son, who seems to be spending too much of his father’s money in the business they’re in. They’re a wool brokerage firm — hence the title. The son has also left his wife and new-born baby. Is there another woman?


   Assisting Whitney — or making her way down to LA on her own to spend the holiday with him, or as much of it as there is left after Whit’s investigative duties are over– is Kitty MacLeod, “the best-looking girl in San Francisco, and pretty clever as well,” as she’s described on page 12.

   I’ve not read the first book in the series, and make no doubt about it, I will, but in that book (according the short recap on just about the same page) Whit’s former partner was murdered and at the time, Kitty was his wife.

   It’s now six months later, and Whit and Kitty have become very close. Whit is beginning to worry that some of his colleagues are starting to talk. There had even been some talk at the time that Whit had had something to do with Kitty’s ex’s departure from life, and getting out of the jam at the time seems to be the gist of the story in Death and Taxes.

   But that was then, and this is now. There is indeed a woman involved, as suspected — getting back to the case that Whit was hired to do — and the woman leads to a hotel room, and in the hotel room are … gamblers. A crooked card game, and the black sheep is getting sheared.

   It is all sort of a light-hearted tale, in a way, but then a murder occurs, and a screwy case gets even screwier — in a hard-boiled kind of fashion. Let me quote from page 160. Whit is talking to his client, who speaks first:

    “I don’t think it’s wise to interfere with the police, Whitney.”

   “I won’t interfere with them. I’d cooperate with them except that they’ve told me to keep out of it. I want you to know how I feel, Mr. Clayton. You hired me to find out what Bob was doing with your money, and to stop it. I found out what was going on, but I thought the best way to stop it was to let these crooks get out on a limb, and then saw it off behind them. I thought I could protect your money and show Bob what was happening at the same time. I guessed wrong. I don’t know who killed […] or why he was killed, and I don’t think I’m responsible for his death, but I’m in a bad spot and I’d like to bail out of it by myself — for my own satisfaction. The police needn’t know what I’m doing. I don’t have to tell you that I don’t want to be paid for it, but if you haven’t any objection, I’ll try to find out who killed […] and get your money back.”


   Here are a few lines from page 170, at which point things are not going so well:

    He got off the bed and prowled thoughtfully around the room in his stocking feet, still holding the beer glass. What would Sherlock Holmes do with a case like this? Probably give himself a needleful in the arm — Whit drained his beer glass — and deduce the hell out of the case.

   Whit tried deduction.

   Those were the days when mystery thrillers were also detective novels. After a long paragraph in which Whit tries out his best logic on the tangled threads of the plot, and who was where and when and why:

    It was a pretty wormy syllogism. As a deducer Whit knew he was a lemon when it came to logic, and he was an extra-sour lemon because he didn’t know enough about Bob Clayton to figure out what he might do in a given set of circumstances. Such as having a pair of football tickets to dispose of, for example. Ruth Martin might have known where they went, but didn’t, ditto Mrs. Clayton, ditto John Clayton. Jack Morgan was the next one to try.

   What’s interesting is that Kitty has more to do with solving the case than Whit does. Things happen rather quickly at the end, and if all of the loose ends are (or are not) all tied up, no one other than I seems to think it matters, as long as the killer is caught — who was not someone I suspected, or did I? I probably suspected everyone at one point or another.

   I also wonder if what happens on the last page has anything to do with the title of Whit Whitney’s next adventure in crime-solving. Read it, I must. And I will.

— March 2006.

[UPDATE #1] 06-24-09.   That’s a promise to myself that I haven’t kept yet, alas, and re-reading this review (and looking at those paperback covers) gives me all the resolve I need to follow through. You can count on that and take it to the bank. Non-negotiable.

[UPDATE #2] 06-29-21. Looks like I can’t keep promises very well, even those I make to myself. This is still the only book in the series I’ve read. I have just given myself a good talking to.



WITNESS IN THE DARK. Alliance Films, UK, 1959. NBC, US, 1961 (TV). Patricia Dainton, Conrad Phillips, Madge Ryan, Nigel Green. Director: Wolf Rilla. Currently available on YouTube here.

   Most stories relay on relatable, often primal instincts to engage an audience. In thrillers, fear is the one most filmmakers try to evoke, and it can never be more acute than those times in which we are least in control. We feel especially vulnerable when we are incapacitated in some way and the most dramatic method of conveying this is injuring the protagonist. This usually happens towards the end of the third act, during the final confrontation when it seems as though the hero is about to perish. Sometimes, however, the injury is built into the story from the start in order to bring maximum intensity.

   The most famous example of this is Hitchcock’s Rear Window, in which James Stewart’s photojournalist breaks his leg and is forced to remain in his Greenwich Village apartment with nothing to do but stare out of the window and suspect people of murdering their wives. In Witness in the Dark, the injury is blindness. This had already been explored in 23 Paces to Baker Street (1956) and would be again in Wait Until Dark with Audrey Hepburn and See No Evil with Mia Farrow.

   Jane Pringle (Patricia Dainton) was blinded five years ago in a car accident in France which also killed her fiancé. She now continues to work as a switchboard operator and even teaches a young boy how to read Braille. However, one night, alone in her flat, she hears a disturbance downstairs. She investigates, moving into the hall, and encounters a thief (Nigel Green) on the staircase. Fortunately for the thief, Jane is unable to see him and will not, therefore, be able to identify him later.

   The thief does not attack her and instead escapes. Inspector Coates (Conrad Phillips) investigates and discovers that the thief had also murdered Mrs Temple, the old lady whose flat had been burgled. Jane, realising that she came so near to the culprit, believes she can help. Things get charged, however, when the thief decides he must return and tie up one or two loose ends…

   A brisk, involving thriller, Witness in the Dark succeeds in what all such films must do and makes the audience care for the character in danger. Jane is a pragmatic, brave, independent and compassionate woman who clearly has not let the tragedy in her life define it, and Dainton convincingly portrays someone without sight, sans glasses. Nigel Green, unsurprisingly, makes for a dauntingly sinister villain and, in the final scenes, maintains dignity and tension in what might otherwise have seemed vaguely farcical.

   Conrad Phillips gives his usual best, here appearing after thirty-nine episodes of ITV’s The Adventures of William Tell. I’m always interested – though not morbidly so – in how long such actors ended up living, and Phillips left us five years ago at the age of 90, after publishing his autobiography Aiming True online.

   There is also some amiable comedy involving Jane’s neighbours Mr and Mrs Finch, in which the former is hoping to retain the stolen pocket watch he has recently bought down the pub and not relinquish it to the investigating officer. Elsewhere, eagle-eyed viewers will spot Man About the House and Robin’s Nest star Richard O’Sullivan, only fifteen as the young blind boy Jane coaches, while there’s a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it role from future Doctor Who and Emmerdale Farm star Frazier Hines as a newspaper boy.

Rating: ***

MICHAEL COLLINS – The Night Runners. Dan Fortune #9. Dodd Mead, hardcover, 1978. Playboy, paperback, May 1981.

   What makes Dan Fortune distinctive among other fictional PI’s is that he has only one arm. Among the other obvious disadvantages it presents is that it makes it rather difficult to blend in with a crowd when tailing someone, for example, but little more than comes up in this, his ninth recorded adventure.

   He’s hired by the head of a small but profitable pharmaceutical company in this one to find the man’s older brother Bill, a fellow who works for the firm but is essentially useless on the job. Worse, every so often he goes off on gambling binges – the players in these floating poker games all being night runners – but what’s different this time is that he’s also completely disappeared.

   Fortune takes the job and quickly discovers that Bill has gotten involved with an attempt to rescue his nephew from a Mexican prison (involving a band of outlaws/mercenaries as another type of night runner)  and that the $8000 he had been entrusted with has also disappeared. Has he gambled the money away or has the bribery attempt gone bad? When an intermediary is found dead, Fortune cannot help but think the latter.

   There are a lot of people involved in the story that follows, perhaps too many for its own good: the ones working for the pharmaceutical company based in Connecticut; the sleazy go-betweens Bill has gotten mixed up with in New York City; and the even more ruthless ones down in Mexico. The quietly desperate lives of those living in the urban environs of the big city, most of them creatures of the night, are portrayed the best, which is not to say that those living in suburban and small town Connecticut do not have their own problems, except to say that they hide them better.

   Weakest are the scenes taking place in Mexico, which are both significant but thankfully short. All in all, it’s quite a mixture, and as such makes for fairly intense reading. Unfortunately I found the primary villain of the affair rather obvious, and you may too. Fortune simply does not ask the right questions at the right time; that is to say, when I thought he should.

Reviews by L. J. Roberts


SHELDON SIEGEL – Final Out. Mike Daley/Rosie Fernandez #12. Sheldon M. Siegel, Inc., paperback, January 2021.

First Sentence: The Honorable Robert J. Stumpf, Jr. scanned the empty gallery in his airless courtroom on the second floor of San Francisco’s crumbling Hall of Justice.

   Jaylen Jenkins is arrested for the murder of prominent San Francisco sports agent Robert Blum. He is on video holding a baseball bat walking toward Blum, and then running away without the bat. Jenkins claims he is innocent. But is he? Without contradictory evidence, can attorney Mike Daley and the team of the San Francisco Public Defender’s Office use the “SODDI” defense to convince the jury that some other dude did it?

   The story begins with a soft case to introduce the principal characters in a casual, conversational manner. In very little time, one is taken into the meat of the story and a case that couldn’t be more timely. One of the benefits is learning something new. Siegel walks readers through every aspect of the case allowing one to experience exactly what is involved. He educates without lecturing or slowing down the plot. After all, who else is familiar with the legal term “wobbler”?

   It is impossible to conceive knowing one is innocent and while being told accepting a plea sentence of eight years is a “good deal,” yet that happens to so many.

   Through the principal character, Mike, an ex-priest turned lawyer, Siegel created an excellent ensemble cast of Mike’s family and friends. They are wonderfully drawn; brought to life mainly though his skill with dialogue. Even Mike’s internal monologues add dimension to the character and the story.

   One appealing aspect of the character is his realism. This isn’t a strutting, overly-confident lawyer, this is one who recognizes he could lose his case.

   Set in the San Francisco Bay Area, captured in perfect detail, Siegel brings the region into focus. It is always fun having a book set in one’s hometown, being familiar with the places visited by the characters. It is even more amusing when the author’s description of a particular building echoes one’s own thoughts— “The Salesforce Tower dominated the San Francisco skyline and dwarfed the Transamerica Pyramid. It’s impressive in its size and technology, but it looks like an enlarged phallic symbol to me.”

   Siegel’s style is one of short, tightly written chapters that read almost as vignettes. Each chapter compels one to continue reading straight through to the end.

   Final Out is well written and completely involving. The underlying theme is a sad, but important truth about our justice system.

Rating: Very Good.

THE BADLANDERS. MGM, 1958. Alan Ladd, Ernest Borgnine, Katy Jurado, Claire Kelly, Kent Smith, Nehemiah Persoff. Based on the novel The Asphalt Jungle by W. R. Burnett (1949). Director: Delmer Daves.

   I suppose I should tell you that I haven’t yet gotten around to seeing the earlier version of this movie, nor have I read the book. All I know is that it has a pretty good reputation (the movie, I mean; I don’t know about the book). Whose idea it was to turn it into a western, I don’t know that either, but it was a lousy idea.

   At least it’s one that didn’t come off, in terms of putting it into practice. I’m not surer what went wrong. The actors are professional and competent, and they seem enthusiastic enough. (Or in Alan Ladd’s case, as enthusiastic as he ever seems to get.) I would lay most of the blame on the people responsible for the script.

   But maybe I should tell you what the story’s about first. Ladd is a mining engineer or geologist who’s been framed for stealing some gold; Borgnine is a simpler sort who’s been cheated out of a mine (or the land it was on; it wasn’t entirely clear) and jailed for retaliating the only way he knew. They leave Yuma Prison at the same time, but not on so friendly terms with each other. Nevertheless, they decide to team up and steal some ore that’s still in a vein that only Alan Ladd knows about.

   Along the way somehow or another they become friends. Male bonding. Borgnine also saves a Mexican woman (Katy Jurado) from some overfriendly white men, and before you know it, he has moved in with her, full of surprisingly cheerful good will toward mankind.

   The heist comes off – don’t ask me how they can carry around three large bags of gold ore worth $200,000 (or more) with as little effort as this – and what it so unpredictable about the rest of the movie is that no one would predict anything as predictable as what happens next. If you see what I mean.

– Slightly revised from Mystery*File #32, July 1991.


I’m back in business again, starting later today, I hope. I still don’t know what the problem was. While demonstrating it over the phone to my son-in-law Mark, the third time was the charm. It stopped.

And I’d already rushed over to Home Depot for five boxes of baling wire and duct tape. Fingers crossed that it won’t happen again, but next time I’m ready.

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