DETOUR TO DANGER. Planet Pictures, 1946. Britt Wood, John Day, Nancy Brinckman, Eddie Kane, Fred Kelsey, Si Jenks, Eddie Parker, Ashley Cowan, Bud Wolfe, Ken Terrell. Screenwriter: Alan James. Producer-directors: Harvey Parry & Richard Talmadge.
I’m not going to kid you. This is one really bad movie, put together by a group of amateurs, I’d bet you think by looking at the credits, but you’d be wrong. Not about this being a bad movie, since it is, but the men behind it, from the producers-directors on down, all had lengthy careers in the movies. Almost all of them have long lists of movies they were involved with in some way or another, some of them up to 300 entries long, perhaps more, going back to the silent days.
Mostly in bit roles, to be sure, or as stunt men. The leading man, John Day (John Daheim) and both directors did stunt work in loads of movies. They must have decided to put up the financing together to form Planet Pictures, which made only one other movie, Jeep Herders, also in 1946, and while they also probably went broke very quickly, they must have had a lot of fun doing so.
The plot is nothing, and it’s poorly told. A gang of payroll robbers are forced to land their getaway plane near a summer resort spot somewhere near Big Bear Lake in southern California, where they mingle with the guests until two fishing buddies, Speedy (Britt Wood, and the funny one) and Steve (John Day, the husky clean-cut one) save the day.
While the crime solving is inept, the romance is even worse. Things are livened up a little when a runaway excursion wagon filled with screaming girls is saved by the two heroes in their beat-up old jalopy, and a fight scene that lasts the final five minutes, much of it taking place in an another runaway truck careening its way down a narrow mountain road.
What’s remarkable is that this movie was filmed in color. What’s even more remarkable that this movie still exists today, but only Alpha Video would believe it was worth releasing on DVD.
TOUCH OF EVIL. Universal, 1958. Charlton Heston, Janet Leigh, Orson Welles, Joseph Calleia, Akim Tamiroff, Joanna Moore, Ray Collins, Dennis Weaver, Marlene Dietrich, Zsa Zsa Gabor. Screenplay: Orson Welles, based on the novel Badge of Evil, by Whit Masterson. Director: Orson Welles.
WHIT MASTERSON – Badge of Evil. Dodd Mead, hardcover, 1955. Reprinted as Touch of Evil, Bantam A1699, paperback, 1958; Carroll & Graf, paperback, 1992.
In contrast to The Long Wait, reviewed here, Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil (Universal, 1958) now available in a restored Director’s Cut, begins its cinematic fireworks with the first shot and never pauses for the smoke to clear. The tale of bigoted cops and a corrupt investigation unfolds in scene after scene of sheer cinematic brilliance –
– and I have to say it gets a bit tiring after a while; like watching unending MTV videos or Previews of Coming Attractions that never stop. The eye tires after forty minutes or so (This eye did, anyway.) and I was glad for the relative quiet of a few reflective moments with Marlene Dietrich at her weary best as a Gypsy fortune-teller (“Your future’s all used up.”) just one of a number of cameo appearances that include Ray Collins and Joseph Cotton from Citizen Kane, and Mercedes McCambridge as a lesbian biker.
On the other hand, Whit Masterson’s book that this was based on, Badge of Evil, is so bland as to be resolutely unreadable. The flat prose recounts little but a few cardboard characters moving slowly through an unremarkable plot to no discernible end. But perhaps I shouldn’t be too hard on this book, since I couldn’t finish it; maybe things really picked up after the first fifty-odd pages.
THE UNSTOPPABLE MAN. Argo Film Productions, UK, 1960. US release, 1961. Cameron Mitchell, Marius Goring (Inspector Hazelrigg), Harry H. Corbett, Lois Maxwell, Denis Gilmore, Humphrey Lestocq, Ann Sears. Based on the short story “Amateur in Violence,” by Michael Gilbert. Director: Terry Bishop.
Sometimes criminals, despite all the possible planning, still pick the wrong target. That’s definitely the case in The Unstoppable Man, a taut British thriller. Directed by Terry Bishop, the movie stars Cameron Mitchell, a veteran actor best known for his work in American and Italian film as well on American television.
Mitchell portrays James Kennedy, an American businessman in London whose business acumen seemingly is unparalleled. Kennedy is put to the test when his young son is kidnapped and held for ransom by a motley crew of thugs. Scotland Yard wants to take the lead, but Kennedy has his own plans. They include paying off the hostage takers in a greater amount than they demand, with the expectation that thieves aren’t the most honest of men and will gladly turn on each other for a few quid more.
In The Unstoppable Man, that proves to be the case.
One of the kidnapper gang ends up dead and helps lead Kennedy (and the cops) to the house where his son is being held. It’s there that the action finally, and somewhat belatedly, kicks in. Although he’s a man more used to the boardroom, Kennedy shows he can brawl as if he were in a barroom. There’s even a great scene – a pivotal one – where Kennedy utilizes a would-be flamethrower against a man involved in his son’s kidnapping.
While there’s nothing in The Unstoppable Man that’s exceptional, that doesn’t mean that it isn’t a good — make that a very good — crime film. Running at around seventy minutes, it’s economical both on plot and the viewer’s time. But what it lacks in originality, it makes up for in atmosphere and an early 1960s jazz-influenced soundtrack that works very well.
For crime fans, it’s worth watching if you get the opportunity. For Mitchell fans (and I know that some are out there), it’s a must see.
THE CAT BURGLAR. United Artists, 1961. Jack Hogan, June Kenney, John Baer, Gregg Palmer, Will White, Gene Roth, Bruno VeSota. Director: William Witney.
The Cat Burglar doesn’t have the most unique plot, the best actors, or the greatest cinematography. But what it has going for it is atmosphere. An atmosphere of low-rent criminals, sleaze, and the type of world-weariness and despair you’d expect to find on the margins of polite society. Plus there’s a pretty great fight sequence in a warehouse at the end of the movie.
Directed by William Witney, the story follows the tragic life of third, make that fourth, rate Southern California cat burglar Jack Coley (Jack Hogan). Coley gets more than he bargains for when he breaks into a woman’s apartment and steals a briefcase that contains – you guessed it – documents and papers that a foreign spy ring is more than eager to get their hands (and fists) on. As I said, it’s not the most unique plot.
Witney’s direction takes us to the low-rent side of Los Angeles: a pawnshop, the broken down apartment of a criminal low-life fixer, Coley’s ratty garden apartment, and a warehouse filled with cardboard boxes. Coley is a tragic figure, a man who knows he’s really not a very good person. In the course of the film, he gets chewed out by his landlady and beaten to a bloody pulp. He also redeems himself at the very end, demonstrating to himself that his life hasn’t been a complete waste.
All told, it’s a fairly bleak, albeit disconcertingly entertaining, little production. Part of this is due to the Buddy Bregman jazz soundtrack. Granted, it’s a bit unusual to have an early 1960s jazz sound to a taut, low budget crime thriller. But The Cat Burglar is, in many ways, a quite unusual film.
Yes, the story doesn’t really make all that much sense or hold up to scrutiny all that well. But in a way, it really doesn’t matter. The film is less about the story, than it is about taking the viewer a cinematic sojourn through the frighteningly sleazy shadows of sun-baked Los Angeles. And with Witney at the helm, The Cat Burglar does that pretty darn well.
THE LONG WAIT. United Artists, 1954. Anthony Quinn, Charles Coburn, Gene Evans, Peggie Castle, Mary Ellen Kay, Shawn Smith, Dolores Donlon. Based on the book by Mickey Spillane. Director: Victor Saville.
Victor Seville’s film of The Long Wait from the novel by Mickey Spillane, is an action-packed but mostly banal affair, bucked up somewhat by Anthony Quinn as a herd-boiled amnesiac who loses his fingerprints end memory in a fiery car crash that opens the thing.
Wandering back to his home town, he finds himself wanted for en old murder by the local cops, and definitely unwanted by the local crooks, who find his presence somehow threatening to Organized Crime thereabouts. Indeed, the only ones with a friendly interest in Quinn are a half-dozen beautiful women who – because this is a Spillane story – fling themselves at him, knees akimbo, and — because this is a 50s movie — take him up to their apartments end dance with him.
The story proceeds mostly by-the-numbers, competent but unremarkable, helped along by vigorous thesping from the likes of Charles Coburn, Gene Evans and Bruno VeSota as the sweatiest henchman in film noir.
Anthony Quinn, who cut his acting teeth playing small-time hoods in Paramount “B” movies brings a mean-spirited panache to the goings-on, and then…
… and then for some reason there are five minutes in The Long Wait of pure, sadistic brilliance: A protracted execution, set in an abandoned warehouse, with harsh lights, minimal sets and camerawork that spreads like an expressionist dream across the screen as Gene Evans taunts and toys with his bound victims until….
But that would be spoiling things. Suffice it to say that The Long Wait may be a more descriptive title than the producers intended, but it’s definitely worth the time.
FIRST YOU READ, THEN YOU WRITE
by Francis M. Nevins
In ELLERY QUEEN: THE ART OF DETECTION I mentioned that the music for the first ten episodes of the ADVENTURES OF ELLERY QUEEN radio series, which debuted in 1939, was composed by the young Bernard Herrmann, and that three excerpts from his scores for the series could be heard on the Web, played on a synthesizer by David Ledsam.
A few weeks ago I discovered that three complete Herrmann scores for the series were uploaded to the Web last summer, more than a year after my book came out. The episodes for which Herrmann’s music can now be heard are “The Fallen Angel,” “Napoleon’s Razor” and “The Impossible Crime,” which aired respectively on July 2, 9 and 16 of 1939.
Each score runs from ten to twelve minutes and is played on a synthesizer by Kevin Dvorak. I’m sure the music would sound more like the Herrmann we know and love if it were played on the instruments for which he wrote it, but it’s a lot better than what we had before, which was nothing. Check all three out via the YouTube videos above.
For us old-timers “Gone Girl” is the name of a Lew Archer short story by Ross Macdonald. Now it’s also the name of a first-rate crime-suspense movie, directed by noir specialist David Fincher and written by Gillian Flynn based on her 2012 best-seller of the same name.
Most readers of this column are likely to have seen something about the picture, so I won’t bother to summarize the plot beyond saying that when beautiful Amy Elliott Dunne (Rosamund Pike) disappears from her upscale Missouri home amid signs of violence, the media go into a frenzy and all but crucify her husband Nick (Ben Affleck) as her murderer.
There are several strong females in the film so perhaps I’m not revealing too much when I say that one of them struck me as the film noir woman to end all film noir women, and a manipulator of such epic proportions that she leaves Diedrich Van Horn and all the other Iago figures in the Ellery Queen novels choking on her dust.
A few weeks ago, with a bit of time to kill, I decided to tackle REDHEAD (Hurst & Blackett, 1934), the fourth of John Creasey’s 600-odd novels, the second of 28 that deal with Department Z — which in those days of Creasey’s youth was called Z Department — and the earliest I happen to own.
According to the invaluable Hubin bibliography, this item was never published in the U.S., not even back in the early 1970s when Popular Library was putting out original paperback versions of countless Creaseys from the Thirties. My copy is an English softcover (Arrow pb #417, 1971) and indicates that the book was revised for republication, although the revisions must have been done with a very light hand indeed.
Department Z has little to do with the operation, which pits a muscular young Brit named Martin “Windy” Storm and various of his cohorts against an American gangster known as Redhead who’s determined to bring his crime methods into England.
If Creasey took this notion from Edgar Wallace’s 1932 novel WHEN THE GANGS CAME TO LONDON, he moved the center of gravity to the remote Sussex village of Ledsholm and the ancient castle that dominates the area. Much of the book’s second half is taken up by a long long action sequence in which our guys inside Ledsholm Grange are besieged by two separate gangs equipped with revolvers, automatics, machine guns, armored cars, explosives, the whole nine yards of weaponry.
But since all the characters are stick figures, it’s very hard to keep the action straight or care who shoots or socks whom. Every other sentence ends with an exclamation point (“The greatest criminal enterprise in the history of England was reaching its climax!”), and the king toad makes Lord Voldemort look like a newborn kitten (“Through the hole in the wall he saw the demoniac eyes of Redhead, green, fiendish, glowing with the blood-lust that possessed him”).
The writing is almost Avallonean in spots: “‘Be quiet!’ hissed Redhead.” And if Creasey preserved lines like “A bullet winged its message of death across the room, sending the dago staggering back”, I can’t help wondering what gems of political incorrectness he tossed out.
Fast forward to his books of only seven or eight years later, like the early Roger West novels (the first five of them collected in INSPECTOR WEST GOES TO WAR, 2011, with intro by me), and you see at a glance how radically Creasey’s writing skills improved over the Thirties.
Or did it take that long? I also happen to have a copy of the next Department Z adventure, FIRST CAME A MURDER (Andrew Melrose, 1934; revised edition, Arrow pb #937, 1967). It has all the earmarks of a Thirties thriller but the writing is so much more restrained and stiff-upper-lippish that it’s hard to believe it came from the same pen as REDHEAD just a few months before.
I don’t have copies of any Creaseys earlier than these but, judging from the quotations in William Vivian Butler’s THE DURABLE DESPERADOES (1973), both SEVEN TIMES SEVEN and THE DEATH MISER resemble FIRST CAME A MURDER in this respect. Of course, what I have is the revised version of the latter title, and perhaps Butler was quoting from the revised versions of Creasey’s earlier novels too.
But in that case why does the revised version of REDHEAD sound so different? I can only speculate, and perhaps, in the words of so many Erle Stanley Gardner characters, I’m taking a button and sewing a vest on it. But it strikes me as significant that REDHEAD was originally published by Hurst & Blackett whereas the publisher of all the other early Creaseys was Andrew Melrose.
Creasey once said that SEVEN TIMES SEVEN, the first novel he sold, was the tenth he’d written. Could REDHEAD have been one of the rejected nine? If there’s ever a comprehensive biography of that awesomely prolific author, perhaps we’ll learn the answer.
THINGS TO DO IN DENVER WHEN YOU’RE DEAD. Miramax Films, 1995. Andy Garcia, Christopher Lloyd, William Forsythe, Bill Nunn, Treat Williams, Jack Warden, Steve Buscemi, Fairuza Balk, Gabrielle Anwar, Christopher Walken. Director: Gary Fleder.
Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead is a good film, perhaps very good, if a bit too firmly mired in its own neo-noir ambiance. Andy Garcia plays a character on the fringe of the underworld pressured by mob boss James Woods into settling his debts by beating up a romantic rival of Woods’ younger brother.
Andy recruits a team of other needy-seedy types to help out, including Treat Williams and Christopher Lloyd, and when the plan goes spectacularly awry, he’s given 48 hours to get out of town… while his henchmen get Steve Buscemi as the deliveryman for slow, painful death.
Motivated by quirky loyalty, Garcia decides to spend his last 48 hours trying to save the inept buddies who screwed things up in the first place, bringing on a nice, pre-doomed search for some meaning in one’s own death: a perfect noir conundrum.
Most reviewers found this too clever by half, but I thought it very deeply-felt, well-played and intelligent. Someone told Andy Garcia to “do Cary Grant,” and he makes a nice job of it. Even better is Treat Williams, whose brilliant, portrayal of a sub-normal Strong-arm should be held up as a textbook model to show every actor how to lose himself in a part, a powerful bit of acting which should have won him an Oscar.
Of course, some elements of his character may be in questionable taste, but it’s still a dandy performance in a film good enough that I wish they hadn’t felt it necessary to underline Garcia’s dilemma by having someone watch DOA in the background.
THE LAST RIDE. Warner Brothers, 1944. Richard Travis, Charles Lang, Eleanor Parker, Jack La Rue, Cy Kendall, Wade Boteler, Mary Gordon. Director: D. Ross Lederman.
One of the players in this film was later nominated for three Oscars, and it wasn’t either the leading player, Richard Travis, whose career never got out of first gear, nor was it Cy Kendall, even though he was always, as he is in this film, the best villain around, and always worth watching — the oiliest, the most conniving, and in a good old-fashioned way, a wonderful toad of a fellow with a eye always on whatever money he can make in whatever scheme seems the most profitable at the time.
And in The Last Ride, made in 1944 — war time, in other words, when rubber was scarce — that’s where the money is. In spite of the patriotic message this movie was intended to send, supporting the war effort, Mr Kendall is not only a captain in the police department, but he’s also the secret head of a gang of black marketeers in the tire business.
Problem is, the tires are shoddy, and as a result a couple of kids on a joy ride end up dead in a ditch. Travis plays Pat Harrigan, a detective on one side of the law, while his brother Mike is on the other and one of the members of the gang. They both have their eye on a girl named Kitty Kelly (Eleanor Parker), but her part in the story all but disappears after 30 minutes into the story, not much over the halfway point.
Travis tries to pull of the oldest gambits in the books, from the police department’s point of view, and the tale peters out from there. The beginning’s not bad, and some money was put into the production, but when a key point in the tale is covered in a letter to the police captain, one that has to read by the audience on the screen, instead of a short two minute scene that could have shown the same thing, you have to know that corners had to be cut somewhere, and it shows.
FIRST YOU READ, THEN YOU WRITE
by Francis M. Nevins
In the late Fifties and early Sixties private eye series on TV were a dime a dozen. One of the lesser known of these was released on DVD by Timeless Media not long ago and, never having watched it back in 1960 when it was first run, I decided to check it out more than half a century later.
CORONADO 9 was a 30-minute syndicated series, released by Revue Studios, largely shot on location in San Diego and elsewhere, and starring 6’5″ Rod Cameron (1910-1983) as PI Dan Adams, a big beefy guy who conjures up images of a pro football player in middle age.
What makes the series unusual is that its directors and writers went out of their way to avoid the tried-and-true elements we tend to associate with the PI genre except for the chases and fights, which we also associate with Westerns, and of course for the first-person narration, although almost every episode cheats with scenes outside the narrator’s presence. Adams is so untypical an eye that, assuming he has an office, we literally never see him in it.
The main reason the series attracted me is that 16 of its 39 segments were directed by William Witney (1915-2002), the Hitchcock of the action film and my best friend in Hollywood. When it comes to visual excitement, most of Bill’s are not on a par with his great cliffhanger serials (one of which starred a much younger and leaner Rod Cameron) and Western features and episodes of TV series like BONANZA and THE WILD WILD WEST and THE HIGH CHAPARRAL, but the best of them are very good indeed.
Whenever he could take over a locale and shoot his climax there, he did it with glee, commandeering a Coast Guard cutter for “The Day Chivalry Died” and the San Diego Zoo for “Obituary of a Small Ape,” just to give two examples. My favorite among Bill’s dozen-and-a-third is “Hunt Breakfast,” which despite its unintelligible title is a near-perfect film equivalent to those Fawcett Gold Medal paperback original novels that are central to the Fifties experience for many of us. In this episode Adams tries to save a friend and his family whose home has been invaded by three bank-robbing psychos, and the Witney visual fireworks run neck and neck with the violence.
Of the 23 episodes not directed by Witney the most deserving of mention are at least four which were apparently shot on location in New Orleans and helmed by Frank Arrigo (1917-1977), who usually worked in Hollywood as an art director.
The segments which take place overseas seem to have been filmed on the Revue back lot with help from stock footage and process plates. I certainly don’t believe that Arrigo shot “Film Flam” in Algiers, or “Caribbean Chase” in then newly Communist Cuba!
Among the actors who appeared once or more often in the series are John Archer, Richard Arlen, Al Hodge (early live TV’s Captain Video), DeForest Kelley and Doug McClure. The veterans of Witney’s Western features and earlier TV films whom Bill found roles for in CORONADO 9 episodes include Jim Davis, Faith Domergue, Patricia Medina and Slim Pickens.
Featured in two segments not directed by Witney is Lisa Lu, a well-known Asian actress best known over here as Hey Girl in HAVE GUN–WILL TRAVEL. A friend of mine who recently interviewed her tells me that in her eighties she is still acting.
As so often when Timeless Media releases a TV series, there are a few technical problems with the transfer of CORONADO 9 to DVD. But if you can snag it for a decent price—it’s listed on Amazon.com for $17.99, and someone on the Web claims to have found it at Sam’s Club for $12.88 — it’s worth having.
No one would rank Rod Cameron with the great cinematic PIs, like Bogart in THE MALTESE FALCON and THE BIG SLEEP, Ralph Meeker in KISS ME DEADLY and Jack Nicholson in CHINATOWN. But Liam Neeson comes within shouting distance as Lawrence Block’s recovering alcoholic and off-the-books investigator Matt Scudder in A WALK AMONG THE TOMBSTONES, which is based on Block’s 1992 novel of the same name and came to theaters a few weeks ago.
Directed and written by Scott Frank and filmed noirishly in Brooklyn where the novel takes place, the movie has garnered mixed notices to date, with the reviewer for the Los Angeles Times going so far as to call it torture porn. I’ve seen nothing on the Web or in print that attempts to stack it up against the novel (except for one cyber-comment that I stumbled upon as I was finishing this column) so I might as well do the honors.
Since the book is narrated by Scudder, nothing can happen outside his presence, although Block cheats a bit in the first chapter where lovely Francine Khoury is abducted on a Brooklyn street and, after payment of $400,000 ransom by her narcotics-trafficker husband, is returned cut up into fresh meat.
Unrestricted by first-person narrative, Scott Frank shows us the psycho kidnappers at work here and later in ways Block couldn’t. The novel takes place in 1992, the film in 1999, so that we’re treated to a few allusions to the Y2K panic, which has nothing to do with the plot, and also to the sight of pay phones on the streets of New York City, which do figure in the plot and still existed, I assume, at the end of the 20th century but are rarae aves in today’s cell phone era.
The film’s climax is something like Block’s but also quite different, in ways that I won’t reveal here. Between beginning and end Frank touches base with Block only on rare occasions.
A host of the novel’s characters make no appearance: Scudder’s wealthy call-girl lover, the teen-age computer hackers, the various cops Scudder hits up for information. Although one of the perps’ victims in the novel survives her ordeal and gets to talk with Scudder, in the movie there are no surviving women. Indeed two important male characters make it through the novel alive but wind up dead in the film, and several other men in the movie, like the obese groundskeeper and the DEA agents, have no counterparts in the book.
The bloody incident that made Scudder a boozer is never mentioned in the novel but is dramatized for us in a flashback at the movie’s start, with the difference that Scott Frank morphs it into the catalyst for Scudder’s giving up the sauce and joining AA.
The streetwise black teen who calls himself TJ has a big role in both novel and movie but Frank’s version of the character unlike Block’s is a vegetarian and a victim of sickle cell anemia, although Frank mercifully spares us the rhyming patter and much of the it-be-rainin-out jivetalk of TJ according to Block.
Ironically enough, two of Frank’s alterations in the storyline seem to have been expressly rejected by Block. Late in both versions comes a scene in Brooklyn’s Green-Wood Cemetery where a million dollars, much of it counterfeit, is exchanged for the 14-year-old girl who is the psychos’ latest victim.
In the novel the exchange comes off without incident, and Scudder specifically tells the girl’s family (on page 269 of the hardcover edition) that “it’s crazy to get into a firefight in a graveyard at night”. That craziness Scott Frank embraces, letting the bullets fly and the cars screech and crash away as in a thousand other action flicks.
A fter Block’s badguys have fled the cemetery, TJ tells Scudder (on page 286): “[I]f this here’s a movie, what I do is slip in the back [of the psychos’ vehicle] an’ hunker down ‘tween the front an’ back seats. They be puttin’ the money in the trunk and sittin’ up front, so they ain’t even gone look in the back. Figured they’d go back to their house…an’ when we got there I just slip out an’ call you up an’ tell you where I’m at. But then I thought, TJ, this ain’t no movie, an’ you too young to die.”
Well, what Scott Frank wrote and directed is a movie and that’s exactly what his TJ does and how Neeson as Scudder finds the perps’ home base.
What Larry Block thinks of the picture I have no idea. It does capture something of the spirit of the Scudder series, and Neeson’s performance is excellent, thanks in part to his wisely not attempting a New York accent.
Most of Frank’s innovations help make the movie cinematic in ways that the dialogue-driven novel wasn’t and couldn’t have been. In the same league with THE MALTESE FALCON and THE BIG SLEEP and CHINATOWN it isn’t, and the moments of extreme violence, especially to women, are integral to the storyline but may turn off potential viewers. (I saw it with a Vietnam veteran who later told me he had to close his eyes during some scenes.)
To anyone wondering whether to see it or not, all I can say is: Hit the Web, do your homework, make (or as the Brits would say, take) a decision.
BECAUSE OF THE CATS. Fons Rademakers Production Amsterdam, 1973. International Coproductions, US, 1974 (dubbed). Bryan Marshall, Alexandra Stewart, Edward Judd, Anthony Allen, Sylvia Kristel, George Baker. Screenplay: Hugo Claus, based on the novel by Nicholas Freeling. Directed by Fons Rademaker.
If I ever knew this film existed I had forgotten it until I found it on YouTube.
By any standards this is an odd film. On one hand it is virtually hard core with graphic scenes of male and female full frontal nudity, brutal rape, and one really strange murder; on the other it is a well done and faithful adaptation of the novel that introduced Nicholas Freeling’s Piet Van der Valk to detective fans everywhere.
I can honestly say I’ve seen nothing like it.
I’ll go farther in that I don’t think anything really like it came along until the 1990s and Basic Instinct.
A group of well to do bored youths have formed a club and a sadistic, sociopathic, and hypnotic nilhist has turned them from a group of juvenile delinquents into a Manson like cult. When they break into the home of a well do to middle age couple (shades of A Clockwork Orange, which is nowhere near as graphic or disturbing) they smash the home up and when the couple surprise them, force the husband (and us — in flashback as the wife tells what happened to Van der Valk —Bryan Marshall) to watch her being gang-raped.
This is an extremely violent rape scene, more like something you might expect in one of Jess Franco’s later films than a detective story. The exploitative and voyeuristic aspects of the crime are blatant and it is obvious the director is having it both ways, both a depiction of a brutal crime and an uncomfortable glimpse at our own voyeuristic impulses collectively and individually. Those of you familiar with Italian giallo films of this era may be surprised how far beyond that this goes. I’m not sure I have seen anything like it in a mainstream film of this era, even some with a reputation for shock.
Van der Valk is called in and begins to investigate doggedly. You might expect the sex aspect to take a back seat then, but during the investigation Van der Valk meets a woman from his past (Alexandra Stewart) and they have graphic full frontal nudity sex albeit as a key element of the plot. Much as he is in the novels, Van der Valk is portrayed warts and all.
Later, one of the girls caught up in the plot, Sylvia Kristel, recounts another graphic murder of a young man replete with full nudity, sex, and a truly disturbing scene when all the girls, all nude, drown him while he is making love to Kristel. Prior to that a ritual held by the cult with a dead cat is truly uncomfortable to watch.
Eventually Van der Valk tracks down the hypnotic sociopath behind it all Eric Mierle (Anthony Allen), is nearly killed by him, and when his old flame kills Mierle saving him, Van der Valk stages it to look like he did the shooting in the true high-handed tradition of great detectives everywhere.
This is actually a good seventies detective film with Marshall well cast as Van der Valk (played by Barry Foster on television), and somewhat mindful of Freeling’s description in the book — albeit better looking. Almost everything from the book is here and accurate including Van der Valk’s French wife, Arlette, though she plays no real role other than someone to cheat on.
Even the graphic sexual content is true to the novel, though in the book it is revealed in Van der Valk’s Maigret-like interviews with victims and suspects. Presenting it this graphically in flashback rather than dialogue changes more than you might expect, and I’m not sure if the salacious and voyeuristic feel of the film is accidental because of that or deliberate.
Filmed in the flat seventies style matter-of-factly, though stylishly, with the rich colors of the era predominant in clothes and backgrounds (during the night swim drowning scene the water is startlingly blue and clear the nubile bodies a stark contrast to the horror of their crime), and a few psychedelic touch, it’s very much of its era, yet much more blatantly sexual than even many films meant to shock audiences in that era.
It’s almost as if they had taken one of those German, French, or Italian soft porn films of the era that used to show up late on Showtime and injected an actual detective story into it. It’s a bit wrenching if you don’t know what’s coming as if they didn’t want the audience to know quite how to react to it. It must have been truly uncomfortable to watch in a theater. I mentioned Franco, but it could also have been made by Jean Rollin, Tinto Brass, or other of the era’s more exploitative directors.
This is a well made and well told adaptation of Freeling’s novel, and it captures some of the qualities of his work and aspects of the novel I would have thought couldn’t be filmed. Marshall has a great face that certainly reflects his odd moments of reflection, anger, disgust, and pity. Still it is one of those films that always seems to be on the verge of saying something important and never quite gets it out.
But if nudity, graphic brutal sex, and feigned rape disturb you skip this one.