REVIEWED BY DAN STUMPF:


STEWART EDWARD WHITE – The Killer. Doubleday, hardcover, 1920. Previously serialized in The Red Book Magazine, December 1919 through March 1920. Many reprint and Print on Demand editions available.

MYSTERY RANCH. Fox, 1932. With George O’Brien, Cecilia Parker, Charles Middleton, Charles Stevens and Noble Johnson. Screenplay by Alfred A. Cahn, from the novella “The Killer” by Stewart Edward White.

   I picked up Stewart Edward White’s The Killer on a whim and found it an interesting hybrid of a book: the first third is a longish novelette from which the tome draws its title — about which more later — while the rest of the near-350 pages is a series of lengthy stories and true anecdotes (true-sounding, anyway) about working life on the plains in in the early 1900s: some quite amusing while others read like Hemingway before there was Hemingway.

   But the opening piece, The Killer, is a genuine blood-and-thunder Old Dark House chiller transplanted out west, and grown quite well, too. White sets the mood very capably and once he’s got the background fraught with palpable menace, he proceeds to build a simple but impressive little story filled with mad killers, drug addicts, distressed damsels and doughty do-gooders — all put through their pulp-paper paces with the kind of innocent gusto that typified thrillers of the time, a tale told with charm that writers since have never quite re-captured.

   As for the anecdotes that follow, perhaps they can be best exemplified by:

   “And I don’t need no gun to do it, neither,” he said, as though concluding a long conversation.

  “Shore not, Slim,” agreed one of the group, promptly annexing the artillery. “What is it?”

  “Kill that ____ ____ _____ Beck,” said Slim, owlishly. “I can do it; and I can do it with my bare hands, b’ God!”

   He walked sturdily enough in the direction of the General Store across the dusty square. No one paid any further attention to his movements. The man who had picked up the gun belt buckled it around his own waist. Ten minutes passed. Back across the square drifted a strange figure. With difficulty we recognized it as the erstwhile Slim. He had no hat. His hair stuck out in all directions. One eye was puffing shut, blood oozed from a cut in his forehead and dripped from his damaged nose. One shirt sleeve had been half torn from its parent at the shoulder. But, most curious of all, Slim’s face was evenly marked by a perpendicular series of long, red scratches as though he had been dragged from stem to stem along a particularly abrasive gravel walk. Slim seemed quite calm. His approach was made in a somewhat strained silence. At length there spoke a dry, sardonic voice.

   “Well,” said it, “did you kill Beck?”

   “Naw!” replied Slim’s remains disgustedly, “the son of a gun wouldn’t fight!”

   The Killer was made into a film in 1932, Mystery Ranch, and they did a nice job of it, with fast-paced direction, atmospheric photography by Joe August (Who cut his teeth on the early films of William S. Hart) and spirited playing from George O’Brien, Celia Parker, Noble Johnson and especially Charles “Ming” Middleton as the mad killer.

   And though Middleton gets all the best lines, I have to say he wouldn’t have been nearly so menacing without Charles Stevens (Who made a cottage industry out of playing “Indian Charrlie” in various films of the Wyatt Earp legend) and Noble Johnson skulking about in the background.

   Best of all, it seems everyone involved wisely decided to eschew typical B-movie complications and produced a film with the simplicity of a ballad, just under an hour of solid fun. Existing prints are a bit choppy, but they can’t obscure the streamlined beauty of a film like this.