Steve

Apr 232014
 
THE BACKWARD REVIEWER
William F. Deeck


J. J. CONNINGTON Death at Swaythling Court

J. J. CONNINGTON – Death at Swaythling Court. Little Brown, US, hardcover, 1926. First published in the UK by Ernest Benn, hardcover, 1926. Penguin, UK, paperback in jacket, 1938.

   In the usually quiet village of Femhurst Parva, one Hubbard, butterfly collector and blackmailer, has, according to a coroner’s jury, committed suicide.

   Outside the jury his death creates many questions. Who stabbed him after he poisoned himself, if he did indeed poison himself? Who used a candle and for what in a well-lighted room? Who stole a butterfly?

   There are too many clues, all of which seem to point in different directions. And don’t forget the local inventor’s Death Ray, the village legend of the “Green Devil,” who apparently is keeping up with the times by using the telephone, and the Invisible Man.

   This is a splendid example of the English-village novel. The characterization doesn’t go deep, particularly with Colonel Sanderstead, who investigates, but then he isn’t deep. The fair play promised by the author is here, and I’ll brag and say I got about two-thirds of it right. Fine stuff from the Golden Age.

– From The MYSTERY FANcier, Vol. 13, No. 2, Spring 1991.


Editorial Note: On the occasion of three of J. J. Connington’s mysteries having recently been reprinted by Coachwhip Publications, Curt Evans wrote a long article about the author and the three books and posted it on his blog. Check it out here.

 Posted by at 5:02 pm
Apr 222014
 
Reviewed by JONATHAN LEWIS:         


STORM WARNING. Warner Brothers, 1951. Ginger Rogers, Ronald Reagan, Doris Day, Steve Cochran, Hugh Sanders. Screenplay: Daniel Fuchs & Richard Brooks. Director: Stuart Heisler.

STORM WARNING Ginger Rogers

   As much a cultural artifact as it is a film, Storm Warning (1951) is about a big city woman who witnesses a murder in a small town, the KKK’s stranglehold on otherwise decent people, and a county prosecutor’s determination to both solve a murder and to bring down the local Klan. Directed by Stuart Heisler (The Hurricane) and starring Ginger Rogers, Ronald Reagan, Doris Day, and Steve Cochran, the film is both a captivating tale of suspense and a cinematic jeremiad against the Klan’s role in the post-war South.

   With a screenplay written by Richard Brooks (Elmer Gantry) and Daniel Fuchs (Criss Cross), Storm Warning is notable for its strong anti-Klan message, its bleak depiction of the mores of a particular slice of small town America, and its tragic, downbeat ending.

   Indeed, shadowy black and white cinematography, a setting with dark streets, a neon-lit diner, and an abandoned bus terminal, and a brutal on screen murder, signal Storm Warning’s arrival as a film noir. After about forty minutes or so, however, the film morphs into a middling courtroom melodrama more suited for television than for the big screen. It then reverts to noir, albeit of an even darker shade, for film’s shockingly violent and tragic conclusion.

STORM WARNING Ginger Rogers

   The plot’s basics are as follows. A bus is passing through the small southern town of Rockpoint. One of the passengers, a dress model named Marsha Mitchell (Ginger Rogers), has a sister in town. Since she hasn’t seen her sister in person for two years, she decides to get off the bus in hopes of catching up with her sibling, promising her traveling companion that she’ll catch up with him soon.

   Something seems eerily wrong with the town. The guy who checks luggage at the bus terminal is in a hurry to close up, the local cab driver has no interest in driving his cab, and a diner is closing unusually early. Without a cab to take her to the recreation center where her sister works, Mitchell has to walk alone through the town’s dark, abandoned streets.

   Soon Mitchell witnesses a scuffle outside the local jail. Klansmen are beating a print journalist, Walter Adams, who had been imprisoned on possibly trumped up charges after investigating the Klan. Mitchell witnesses the violence and tries to hide. Things go from bad to worse when one of the Klansman, his hood removed, shoots and kills the reporter.

STORM WARNING Ginger Rogers

   Mitchell finally makes her way to her sister’s house. While catching up, she learns that her sister, Lucy Rice (Doris Day in an early non-singing role), is not only happily married, but also pregnant. Soon, her sister’s loser husband, Hank (Steve Cochran), comes home. Not only do we learn that he has an alcohol problem; he’s also the same guy who shot and killed the reporter.

   Marsha Mitchell has an ethical dilemma. Does she admit that she knows what the husband did? Does she tell the authorities? What responsibility does she have to ensuring her sister’s happiness? What responsibility does she have to tell the truth? What would the consequences be of each possible choice? The movie deals with these very questions.

   Tasked with solving the murder is the local district attorney, Burt Rainey (Ronald Reagan), who is well aware that many of his former high school classmates and neighbors are either in the Klan or are afraid to say anything negative about them.

   Rainey is determined, however, to seek justice for Walter Adams. He doesn’t think much of the Klan, essentially viewing it as a corrupt racket. Eventually, Rainey learns that Marsha Mitchell had witnessed the crime and orders her to a coroner’s inquest. From there, the film takes several twists and turns, only to culminate in an especially noir ending that takes place at a chillingly realistic looking Klan rally out in the woods.

STORM WARNING Ginger Rogers

   As I viewed Storm Warning, several things struck me. First, despite its clear anti-Klan message, there are no explicit references to the Klan’s racism. The viewer is supposed to understand what the Klan is and what it does. This is no Mississippi Burning.

   More notable is the fact that the Klan is presented as a corrupt, fraudulent organization rather than as a vehicle for hate. There are also very few non-white faces in the film. Likewise, not a single character has a Southern accent. Finally, the film is notable for its almost complete lack of levity. Except for a moment in which Rainey’s mother notes that she didn’t vote for her son in his election for district attorney, but would do in the future, the film has almost no memorable humorous or happy moments.

   Reagan succeeds in portraying Rainey as a lonesome warrior for good. Steve Cochran portrays Hank Rice as almost too stupid to be truly evil. The two female leads, Ginger Rogers and Doris Day, portray sisters who have completely different personalities. While Mitchell (Rogers) is guarded and cynical, Rice (Day) is ebullient and distressingly naïve.

   Storm Warning is very dark, unhappy, and claustrophobic film. But it’s not one that a viewer will soon forget. If you choose to watch it, the violence of last ten minutes or so will probably stay in your mind for some time to come. I’m pretty sure that’s what the screenwriters wanted.

STORM WARNING Ginger Rogers

 Posted by at 6:00 pm
Apr 212014
 
Reviewed by DAVID VINEYARD:         


YOUNG DETECTIVE DEE: RISE OF THE SEA DRAGON. China Film Co-production / Huayi Brothers Media, 2013. Original title: Di renjie: Shen du long wang. Mark Chao, Feng Shaofeng, Angelbaby, Lin Gengxin, Carina Lsu, Kim Bum. Screenplay: Kuo-fu Chen, loosely based on the historical Judge Dee. Director: Tsui Hark.

YOUNG DETECTIVE DEE Rise of the Sea Dragon

   Judge Dee, the historical 7th century Chinese magistrate brought to the western world by Robert Van Gulik, was a figure of myth and folklore in Chinese literature, though nothing quite like the Detective Dee we see here and in Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame, the 2010 film this is a prequel to.

   The Dee of Chinese folklore is a cross between Sherlock Holmes, Perry Mason, Uncle Abner, James Bond (he’s quite a ladies’ man), Daniel Webster, and Abe Lincoln. Detective Dee is closer to Ellery Queen as played by Bruce Lee or Jackie Chan as Charlie Chan. (*)

   Here Dee Renjie (Mark Chao replacing Andy Lau in the first film) has been dispatched from the province of Bing to join the Dai Lisi, the imperial investigative service in Luoyang, the holy city of the Tang Dynasty in 665 AD, and it’s an inopportune time to arrive with Empress Wu Zeitian (Carina Lau returning from Phantom Flame) wrapping the Emperor around her little finger, a war with a far off province, trouble being stirred by the Dondo islanders, and the Imperial Fleet at the bottom of the Pacific thanks to a sea dragon.

   Then there is Yin Ruiji (Angelbaby, and well named), the beautiful courtesan wanted by every nobleman in China, hated by the jealous empress, chosen by the people to fast and pray for deliverance from the sea dragon, and incidentally the target of two different kidnap plots and a mysterious sea creature that appears to be half man, half fish.

   She is also in love with a commoner Mr. Khen (Kim Bum) who owns an exclusive tea shop that caters to the imperial court with a tea blend made only for the nobility, and who disappeared six months earlier.

   Just a typical day in a great detective’s life.

   If you know the films of Tsui Hark (A Better Tomorrow, A Chinese Ghost Story, Once Upon A Time in China) you know they well be hauntingly beautiful to watch, the action will be relentless, the camera work and photographic effects spectacular, the wire work exceptional. Tsui Hark’s films are extraordinary visions, thought the plots are sometimes as complex as a Chinese puzzle box.

   Young Dee has no learning curve, he is introduced fully blown watching a procession by the locals to enthrone Yin Ruiji to drive away the sea dragon. It is also the first time he spots the Chief Minster of the Dai Lisi, Yuichi Zhenjin (Feng Shaofeng) whose life and career are on line with the Empress if he does not solve the mystery of the sea dragon. The friendship/rivalry between Dee and Yuichi is the basis for much of the films inner tension as Yuichi’s skill, rank, and experience are more than matched by Dee’s brilliance and audacity.

YOUNG DETECTIVE DEE Rise of the Sea Dragon

   When Dee uncovers an attempt to kidnap Yin and foils it he finds himself fighting two sets of kidnapers, ordinary criminals, and a water creature of incredible power. Joined by Yuichi Dee ends up imprisoned where he meets Shatuo Zhong (Lin Gengxin) a young surgeon apprenticed to the Imperial Dr. and soon to be Watson to Dee’s Holmes.

   Dee’s escape to prevent a second attempt on Yin will team him with a reluctant Yuichi as they fend off Dondo islanders behind the attempt, and Dee recognizes that it is not Yin, but the creature they are after. When Yin reveals the the monster is really her lover, Yuan Dee must capture him and try to cure him to solve the mystery.

   Yuan was poisoned by a parasite that made him into a monster, and the parasite has been placed by the Prince of the Dondo into the special tea made by the tea master. All of the court including the Emperor have been poisoned.

   The plot grows more complex as the empress dislike of Yin, who comes from a warring province, leads to her life being endangered, and it becomes clear the Dondo prince has created and trained a mighty sea dragon and plans to invade and crush the Tang Dynasty. Dee and Yuichi must race to find the island fortress of the Dondo and destroy them or the empress will execute Yin.

YOUNG DETECTIVE DEE Rise of the Sea Dragon

   This leads to a terrific vertiginous four-way fight between Dee, Yuichi, and Shatuo against the armored Prince hanging from cliffs far above the hideout where the sea dragon is hidden. The death of the prince isn’t the end though, as they have to survive the voyage home and an attack by the giant beast, a sort of giant flying manta that previously sank the entire Chinese fleet.

   This epic is entertaining, and mystery fans will enjoy Dee’s Holmesian moments when he gets to display his talents as sleuth with brilliant deductions. There are some nice photographic effects illustrating how Dee’s mind works in observing and deducting.

   Other than the name, this has little to do with the historical Dee or Van Gulik’s version of the tales, but is an entertaining, full color, and apparently 3-D epic in and of itself. Some of the CGI isn’t all that good, but it is made up for by the imaginative camera effects and director Tsui Hark’s skilled hand at this sort of thing. The wire work is well choreographed, and the actors easily recognizable.

   The film ends with the Emperor presenting Dee with the mace of justice, the symbol that he is the the sword of justice for the kingdom, even to the misbehavior of the imperial family (a fact not appreciated by the ambitious Empress Wu).

   The film is fast-paced, action-filled, intriguing, and an interesting blend of summer blockbuster and detective story — replete with dragons, monsters, a tender beauty and the beast story, and two mad scientists. Both this and the first film are worth seeing for the spectacle and the sheer fun. Depending on how you feel about Hark’s better known work you will almost certainly enjoy this one.

(*) If anything, this reminded me a little of Boris Akunin’s Erast Fandor novels, though more fantastical.

YOUNG DETECTIVE DEE Rise of the Sea Dragon

 Posted by at 6:23 pm
Apr 192014
 
Reviewed by JONATHAN LEWIS:         


INNER SANCTUM movie

INNER SANCTUM. Film Classics, 1948. Charles Russell, Mary Beth Hughes, Dale Belding, Billy House, Fritz Leiber, Nana Bryant, Lee Patrick, Roscoe Ates. Director: Lew Landers.

   I placed the DVD in the player, turned off the lights, grabbed some popcorn, and sat down to watch the Lew Landers-directed Inner Sanctum on an atypically cold spring New England night.

   While it is certainly not one of the best-known films noir, Inner Sanctum has many of the genre’s elements: black & white cinematography with ample shadows, a murder, jealousy and betrayal, a woman (or two) scorned, a man at his breaking point, and a suspenseful plot with a clever, twist ending.

   We begin with grainy footage of a train. On board sits a mysterious white-haired gentleman — an apparent clairvoyant psychic with a notable disdain for watches — who tells the woman seated next to him a cautionary tale about a woman who refused to heed a warning not to detrain.

   The man, we learn, is named Dr. Valonius, although he is not a medical doctor. Portrayed by Fritz Leiber, Sr., father of the accomplished fantasy-science fiction author of the same name, Dr. Valonius overall remains dispassionately calm when telling Eve Miller (Marie Kembar) the story of a headstrong woman who after, disregarding a warning, got off a train when she shouldn’t have and got killed.

INNER SANCTUM movie

   The heart of Dr. Valonius’s story, and of the film’s narrative, is about the dark psychological journey of her murderer. But with Inner Sanctum running at a mere 62 minutes in length, we never learn all that much Harold Dunlap (Charles Russell), except that he seems to be willing, for most of the movie at least, to do just about anything to not get caught.

   As it turns out, however, Dunlap wasn’t totally alone on the train platform when he murders the woman. There was a witness to his chilling act. Sitting there, just watching trains, was a young boy, Mike Bennett (Dale Belding). While not a witness to the crime itself, Mike encounters Dunlap after the deed is done and notices blood on Dunlap’s suit jacket. It’s dark out, though, so maybe the kid isn’t seeing everything all that well.

   The story follows the film’s anti-hero, Dunlap, as he maneuvers his way both physically and psychologically through the small Pacific Northwest town where he finds himself. Problem is, the town is experiencing extreme flooding and Dunlap can’t get out. He’s trapped.

INNER SANCTUM movie

   After hitching a ride from a jocular overweight man named McFee (Billy House), Dunlap ends up staying at a boarding house. It’s filled with archetypical characters right out of central casting. Among them, a single mother who desperately wants a husband, a San Francisco beauty with a hidden past and a thing for dangerous men (Jean Maxwell portrayed by Mary Beth Hughes, best known for her role in the 1943 western, The Ox-Bow Incident), a drunk who likes his beer, and a precocious young boy—the same kid a blood-encrusted Dunlap encountered at the train station.

   Dunlap’s relationships with Maxwell and with young Mike Bennett make up the central part of the film. Although he’s not guilt-ridden, he still has to make some choices to make. Is he going to run away with Maxwell or not? Is his secret worth killing over, even if it means killing Mike?

INNER SANCTUM movie

   The film touches upon some quasi-philosophical questions, such as what does it mean for a good man to go bad, but hardly considers them in any meaningful depth. In many ways, there is very little redeemable about Dunlap. He’s definitely noir, rather than a shade of grey.

   Part of this may have to do with Russell, who was less known as a film actor and better known as a radio actor, notably in CBS’s Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar. He portrays Dunlap as a paranoid, angry man. Indeed, in some spine chilling moments, he really does look crazed. But there’s not much range of emotion. Russell’s acts like angry and embittered man throughout the course of the film, making his performance, in a way, boring.

   Dialogue in the film ranges from hackneyed to comedic and everything in between. The first time Dunlap tells Maxwell, “You’re very pretty when you’re lips aren’t moving” it’s both dark and comedic. The second time he says it, it’s laughable (and not in a good way).

INNER SANCTUM movie

   But there are some absolute gems as well, such as when Dr. Valonius tells the woman on the train why he doesn’t wear watches: “I have no need for such contrivances” and “I once had a difference of opinion with a watchmaker. I’ve boycotted timepieces ever since.” Such brilliant weirdness!

   Inner Sanctum is in no way a big budget film or a must see. It’s sort of like a parlor trick. It’s fun and you kind of want to know how the director pulls it off. But the acting isn’t particularly memorable and, apart from the train, the settings are generally forgettable.

   But then, there’s Dr. Valonius. Even though he’s in the movie for less than five minutes in total, Leiber definitely steals the show. And even though most films noir don’t deal with supernatural themes, there’s something about an old psychic on a train that’s about as noir as noir can get.

INNER SANCTUM movie

 Posted by at 2:55 pm
Apr 192014
 
REVIEWED BY DAN STUMPF:         


BEND OF THE SNAKE / BEND OF THE RIVER

BILL GULICK – Bend of the Snake. Houghton Mifflin, hardcover, 1950. Paperback reprints: Bantam #906, 1951; Paperback Library, 1968.

BEND OF THE RIVER. Universal, 1952. James Stewart, Julia Adams, Arthur Kennedy, Rock Hudson, Jay C. Flippen, Chubby Johnson, Stepin Fetchit, Harry Morgan Jack Lambert, Royal Dano, Frances Bavier. Screenplay by Borden Chase. Directed by Anthony Mann.

   Bill Gulick’s first novel, Bend of the Snake, doesn’t seem like anything special to me, but it got snatched up immediately by the movies, and then discarded — of which more later.

    Bend rides out slowly at first, with Scott Burton summoned to help out an old friend in a foundering business deal. Seems his buddy Emerson Cole is trying to break up a local monopoly in the Oregon territory and needs Burton’s help — understandable since Burton is that stock figure of Western Fiction: an honest man who can’t be beaten with guns or fists.

BEND OF THE SNAKE / BEND OF THE RIVER

   Gulick never tells us just what the bond is that makes Burton so willing to come to Cole’s assistance, but it quickly becomes apparent that Cole has neither the spine nor the ethics of his good buddy, character traits which lead the story into murder and a fairly well-handled investigation when a bookish youngster turns amateur sleuth.

   For the most part though, this is pretty standard stuff, with Burton breaking the local robber baron by getting a load of goods to market past his hired guns, then beating down further attempts at ambush, arson and general mayhem.

   Gulick creates an effective cast of salt-of-the-earth settlers and a crusty riverboat captain to give the tale a fine, spirited background, but plot-wise this is no different than a hundred others.

   This was filmed, sort of, as Bend of the River, and when it came out Gulick ran an ad complaining that the only things they used from his book were the first three words of the title. Whereupon screenwriter Borden Chase observed wryly that he should have waited to see if the movie was a hit before distancing himself from it.

BEND OF THE SNAKE / BEND OF THE RIVER

   In fact, Bend of the River (the second teaming of director Anthony Mann and star Jimmy Stewart) was a big hit, and deservedly so. It is in fact, probably the most enjoyable of Mann’s westerns and the most satisfying of Stewart’s.

   Just to be strictly accurate, I should note that Borden Chase did incorporate a few elements from Gulick’s book besides the first three words of the title: Emerson Cole is still a shifty character (though considerably more ballsy as played by Arthur Kennedy) and there’s still a helpful steamboat captain and something about getting a wagon load of goods past considerable obstacles, but the rest is pure Borden Chase, and it’s a theme he’d return to again: a man of principle (Jimmy Stewart, natch, the character re-named Glyn Mclyntock) allied with a helpful but not entirely trustworthy partner (Arthur Kennedy in a role he’d also return to again) involved in a deadly undertaking that is part thrill-a-minute adventure and part spiritual odyssey as Stewart/Mclyntock seeks to redeem himself from his past.

BEND OF THE SNAKE / BEND OF THE RIVER

   Mann seemed particularly attuned to this sort of thing and he evokes it here with speed and energy but without the angst that intensifies his later films: The Naked Spur (’53) and Man of the West (’58) may be more profound, but Bend of the River is more fun, as Stewart and Kennedy brave marauding Indians, crooked speculators, hired guns and mutinous miners (Morgan, Lambert and Dano at their best/worst) on their way to a confrontation that seems all the more satisfying because we know it’s coming.

   I should also add that Universal had Chase write in a part for a rising young newcomer on the lot, Rock Hudson, who can be glimpsed in the Mann/Stewart Winchester ’73 (1950). Chase wrote him in but then apparently had no idea what to do with him as Hudson drops out of the action at a crucial moment and only reappears when it seems safe to do so.

BEND OF THE SNAKE / BEND OF THE RIVER

 Posted by at 2:24 am
Apr 172014
 
A Movie Review by MIKE TOONEY:


THE VANISHING OF PATO

THE VANISHING OF PATÒ. Produced by 13 Dicembre, Emme, S.Ti.C., Rai Cinema, plus others. Premiered in Italy, 2010, as La scomparsa di Patò. Lead parts: Nino Frassica (Marshal Paolo Giummaro), Maurizio Casagrande (Delegato Ernesto Bellavia), Alessandra Mortelliti (Signora Elisabetta Mangiafico in Patò), Neri Marcorè (Antonio Patò), Alessia Cardella (Rachele Infantino). Writers: Andrea Camilleri (novel, screenplay), Rocco Mortelliti and Maurizio Nichetti (screenplay). Director: Rocco Mortelliti. In Italian with English subtitles (MHz broadcast).

   It’s Easter Week, 1890, in the small Sicilian town of Vigata, and the place is abuzz with activity. The annual Mortorio passion play is well underway when one of the principal actors portraying Judas simply vanishes without a trace during the performance. The last anyone sees of him is when he falls through a trapdoor.

   But this Judas is a pillar of the community — a mid-level bank manager named Antonio Patò, known to everyone for his devotion to work, church, and family.

THE VANISHING OF PATO

   Immediately a search is instituted headed by a big-city policeman (Delegato Ernesto Bellavia), but he’s having no luck whatsoever until a provincial policeman (Marshal Paolo Giummaro) gets involved.

   As these two cops, completely different from one another, pursue their investigation they must find answers to such questions as: Why would a man who has been suffering from a rare African sleeping sickness suddenly, almost miraculously, get well practically overnight? Why would it take a man seven hours to make a forty-five minute trip? Who stole several articles of clothing backstage at the Mortorio, and later a pair of shoes from the steps of a church? Who was the man dressed as a farmer who bought a ticket with smooth, uncalloused hands?

   Why would the corpse of a local “businessman” be found neatly laid out on a wall with his severed hands lying on his chest? Why would it become necessary for the two detectives to find themselves in a graveyard at midnight looking for just the right dead man to suit their purposes?

   And perhaps most importantly, why won’t anyone — not the missing man’s wife, not the higher ups in the bureaucracy, NO ONE — believe our detective duo’s solution to this case? After all, it ingeniously explains every anomalous detail, overlooking nothing.

   The answer to that last question is, of course, the essence of the story, the underlying satirical social commentary which the producers are aiming for.

THE VANISHING OF PATO

   While the movie isn’t really original — borrowing heavily from the buddy-cop theme seen in countless films, for instance — it’s the style more than the substance that kicks it up above the ordinary. Some reviewers fault the movie for the extended explanation sequence (over fifteen minutes) at the end, complaining that it’s too long. On the contrary, the big reveal here is perfectly logical and beautifully executed, with past and present seamlessly overlapping each other.

   Novelist and screen writer Andrea Camelleri is best known for creating Inspector Montalbano, the subject of a long-running Italian TV series.

   Viewers might recognize Nino Frassica from another series in which he also plays a marshal, Don Matteo.

 Posted by at 10:47 pm
Apr 152014
 
REVIEWED BY WALTER ALBERT:         


THE RETURN OF JIMMY VALENTINE. Republic, 1936. Re-released for TV as Prison Shadows. Roger Pryor, Charlotte Henry, Robert Warwick, James Burtis, Edgar Kennedy, J. Carroll Naish, Lois Wilson, Wade Boteler, Gayne Whitman. Director: Lewis D. Collins. Shown at Cinefest 26, Syracuse NY, March 2006.

   This was one of those fast-moving programmers that play a lot better than many of the “A” films of the time. It immediately caught my interest with the on-screen re-creation of a Jimmy Valentine radio program that quickly becomes a newspaper sponsored “Find Jimmy Valentine” contest.

   Naish is the leader of a gang looking for Valentine to help pull off a bank heist, while Burtis and Kennedy provide some comic relief. Charlotte Henry was a mature Alice in a 1933 version of Carroll’s classic; here, she’s an attractive leading lady, continuing a modestly successful ten-year film career.

   Robert Warwick, a dependable, leading actor, is the legendary cracksman. He also played Jimmy in the silent Alias Jimmy Valentine, a film released in 1915 and directed by Maurice Tourneur

 Posted by at 11:01 pm
Apr 142014
 
THE BACKWARD REVIEWER
William F. Deeck


AGATHA CHRISTIE The Man in the Brown Suit

AGATHA CHRISTIE – The Man in the Brown Suit. Dodd Mead, US, hardcover, 1924. First published by John Lane/The Bodley Head, UK, hardcover, 1924. Reprinted many times since, in both hardcover and soft. First serialised in the London Evening News under the title Anne the Adventurous, 29 November 1923 to 28 January 1924 (50 installments). TV Movie: CBS, 1988, with Stephanie Zimbalist (Anne Beddingfeld), Rue McClanahan, Tony Randall, Edward Woodward (Sir Eustace Pedler), Ken Howard (Gordon Race).

   While I am tempted to say that this is something of a departure by Christie, that would merely demonstrate my ignorance, as this is one of her earlier works.

   Here she has written a thriller featuring an intelligent, on all but a few occasions, young lady who is seeking adventure. When Anne Beddingfield observes a supposed accidental death at a tube station and suspicious behavior by an alleged doctor, she connects this with a murder the same day. Soon she is spending her meager inheritance for a berth on the Kilmorden Castle, en route to South Africa, in pursuit of the alleged murderer, the Man in the Brown Suit.

   Developments are revealed through the viewpoints of Beddingfield and Sir Eustace Pedler, M.P., both drolly and sillily, if there is such a word. Good fun and, incidentally, a forerunner to…

   But you don’t want to know that, do you? I had that knowledge when I started the novel, and it didn’t spoil the pleasure. Other people may be less complaisant.

– From The MYSTERY FANcier, Vol. 13, No. 2, Spring 1991.

 Posted by at 11:40 pm
Apr 142014
 
REVIEWED BY DAN STUMPF:         


DOROTHY M. JOHNSON The Hanging Tree

DOROTHY M. JOHNSON – The Hanging Tree and Other Stories. University of Nebraska Press, softcover, 1995, with ten stories. Ballantine 274K, paperback original, 1957, with seven stories. Several later Ballantine printings.

   The Hanging Tree is a collection of ten tales by Dorothy M. Johnson written from 1942-57 and some of the best western fiction I’ve ever read. Johnson could pack movement, character and setting into a very few words without sounding packed, and she knew how to develop a tale with a feel for its implications as well as its actions.

   The result is ten memorable vignettes of which “The Hanging Tree” — a great story by itself — is perhaps the least. I got a lot of pleasure from “Lost Sister,” a cryptic tale of a “rescued” captive, and “The Last Boast,” in which a condemned cowboy looks back on the best-and-worst thing he ever did, and there’s some laugh-out-loud prose in “I Woke Up Wicked.”

   In all, a book to treasure and a writer to seek out again.

Editorial Comment:   For more on the author of this collection, Dorothy M. Johnson, her Wikipedia entry is a good place to start.

 Posted by at 12:15 am
Apr 122014
 
Reviewed by JONATHAN LEWIS:         


“NIGHTMARE AT 20,000 FEET.” Episode 123 of The Twilight Zone (CBS TV). Original air date: October 11, 1963. Starring William Shatner. Written by Richard Matheson. Directed by Richard Donner.

TWILIGHT ZONE Nightare at 20000 Feet

   Much has undoubtedly been written about “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet,” an iconic Twilight Zone episode. The show, however, is well worth revisiting, particularly in light of writer Richard Matheson’s passing last year and of director Richard Donner’s recent announcement that he hopes to film a sequel to his 1985 cult classic, The Goonies.

   This 25-minute black & white episode is not merely a vivid small screen representation of psychological torment. It also serves as an excellent reference point for those seeking to connect seemingly disparate elements of twentieth-century science fiction, horror, and popular culture, from airplanes to zombies.

   The plot of “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet,” based on a 1961 Richard Matheson short story of the same name, unfolds as follows. A salesman named Robert Wilson, portrayed with great dramatic effect by a youthful William Shatner in his pre-Star Trek days, spots a bizarre creature — a gremlin — tampering an aircraft’s engine while the plane is in flight.

TWILIGHT ZONE Nightmare at 20000 Feet

   It’s a Twilight Zone episode, so of course there’s a twist. Months earlier, Wilson had experienced a “nervous breakdown” while on an airplane. Now, he is back on a plane for the first time since his stay in a sanitarium. Accompanying him is his wife, played by Christine White. But who is going to believe a man who has suffered from mental illness, especially when he’s the only one who sees the gremlin (Nick Cravat in furry suit that now looks more silly than scary) out on the wing, attempting to tamper with the plane?

   Gremlins, of course, have not been the most prominent of monsters in twentieth-century popular culture. Unlike vampires and demons, which have a long pedigree, the notion of creatures called gremlins likely originated in the 1920s as the figment of British pilots’ collective imaginations. They were prone to mechanical mischief and blamed for tampering with aircraft.

   The best-known literary work about these modernist monsters is Roald Dahl’s children’s book, The Gremlins (1943). Dahl, of course, would go on to write numerous children’s books, screenplays, and short stories.

TWILIGHT ZONE Nightare at 20000 Feet

   Gremlins, of course, had their moment in the sun (pun intended), in the 1984 film, Gremlins. Written by Chris Columbus and directed by Joe Dante, with Steven Spielberg as the film’s executive producer, Gremlins went on to become an American cult classic.

   In the Twilight Zone episode, the character of Wilson mentions gremlins during the flight and alludes to their role in tinkering with aircraft “during the War.” But the gremlin in “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” is, in many ways, peripheral to the episode. It’s a human story, one that remains compelling to this day. It touches on the deep-seated human fear of being, or feeling, completely alone in the midst of chaos.

TWILIGHT ZONE Nightare at 20000 Feet

   Sure, Wilson is with his wife, the pilot, and other passengers. But no one believes him. That’s when, of course, he decides to take matters on his own hands. Without giving away how the story ends, I’ll just mention that there’s an easily accessible gun on the airplane and the emergency window gets opened. Matheson’s story is still incredibly fresh. Optimists take note: there’s a redemptive aspect for Shatner’s character at the very end.

   This leads me to the March/April 2014 issue of Famous Monsters, which includes an extensive tribute to the episode’s writer, Richard Matheson. In a compelling passage, Richard Christian Matheson, the author’s son, wrote as follows:

   “My father could almost see to the core of others in a blink, undistracted by their presented selves. With a sleuth’s calm, he listened, and asked polite questions, until they wandered into the light, often relieved to finally be seen. That genuine curiosity didn’t judge, his empathy for human drama boundless. As a writer, his respect for mazes of human psyche deepened his characters, made them real.” (Page 7)

TWILIGHT ZONE Nightare at 20000 Feet

   Although Richard Christian Matheson doesn’t specifically allude to any particular characters, I can see how this characterization of Matheson’s thinking could apply to the aforementioned Robert Wilson. Indeed, one can hardly watch Shatner’s performance without feeling for his character.

   In conclusion, “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” is more than just a singular episode in the Twilight Zone corpus. It is a cultural artifact in its own right. Aside from Rod Sterling, a legend all his own, the three main men involved in this particular episode’s creation — Shatner, Donner, and Matheson — collectively went on to create a vast body of work that includes some of the best late twentieth-century works in science fiction and popular culture.

   And even though the episode is over fifty years old and the gremlin looks a bit goofy, “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” is an extremely well-written story and an episode worth watching again, if you haven’t done so recently.

Reference: Famous Monsters #272, March/April 2014.

 Posted by at 9:00 pm

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