Jan 262015
 
Reviewed by DAVID VINEYARD:          


TAKE MY LIFE. General Film, UK, 1947; Eagle-Lion Films, US, 1949. Hugh Williams, Greta Gynt, Marius Goring, Francis L. Sullivan, Henry Edwards. Screenplay by Winston Graham and Valerie Taylor, additional dialogue by Winston Graham and Margaret Kennedy based on the play and novel by Winston Graham. Cinematography: Guy Green. Director: Ronald Neame.

         Warning, Spoilers Ahead:

   There is a credit that belongs on this list that isn’t in the on screen or IMDb credits, that name is a former film editor turned director who began his career working with Neame, and according to some sources returned the favor with the outstanding editing that contributes so much to this suspenseful outing, David Lean.

   Whether that is true or not, this film is not only beautifully written by Winston Graham (Marnie, The Walking Stick, The Poldark Saga …) and directed by Ronald Neame, it also has a first class score and outstanding cinematography by Guy Green along with the imaginative editing and structure that adds so much to this film.

   The film’s opening is narrated by Francis Sullivan, the sarcastic and brilliant QC prosecuting Nicholas Talbot (Hugh Williams) for murder. We hear Sullivan’s account of the case while we watch what actually unfolded, even when it veers from Sullivan’s biased account.

   Nicholas Talbot is the n’eer do well husband of opera star Phillipa Shelly (the beautiful Greta Gynt) nee Talbot, and now as her manager, he has his first success in life. Her latest opera is opening in London, and Talbot is busy setting up her future appearances. The night of her debut she is nervous, and a famously temperamental diva on opening nights.

   So it is exceptionally bad night for the substitute violinist in the orchestra to turn out to be Elizabeth (Rosalee Crutchley in a nice totally unsympathetic turn), a lover of Nicholas from the past who begs him to come to see her, accidentally pockets his engraved silver pencil, and carries a picture of him in a locket.

   Phillipa, nerves on end after the success of the debut, puts on a jealous show, keeps digging at Nicholas, and finally throws some thing at him cutting his head when he reacts. He storms out leaving her alone. And during the period he wanders in the rain, a man approximately his height in the same overcoat and trilby that he is wearing shows up at the flat, where Elizabeth, his former lover, lives. He kills her in a fit of rage, sustaining a wound to the head, and then burning the body so no image of her face exists.

   There is a witness, of course, who never saw the killer’s face, but he saw him holding a handkerchief to his wounded forehead. When Scotland Yard puts out a call to hospitals for a man fitting that description, Nicholas is in an emergency clinic getting his wound sewed up because it wouldn’t stop bleeding.

   He is arrested, lies about how he got the wound out of embarrassment. and then when he tells the truth and police go to Phillipa, and thinking she is protecting him, she lies, tightening the noose around his neck. Then the only witness identifies him in a line up as the man he saw on the stairs.

   It may not be true, but the more questions the police ask the more Nicholas looks like a failure who hitched his wagon to Phillipa’s star and thus would have ample motive to murder a threat to that profitable future. He has motive, opportunity, he lied to the police, we really don’t know whether to trust it wasn’t him we saw kill Elizabeth.

    *** If you don’t want to know the rest of the plot, stop here.

   Up to this point the viewer has no idea whether he killed Elizabeth or not. We haven’t seen the killer. We can’t trust the narrator. Have we been seeing what really happened that night even when it veers from Sullivan’s account, or is Nicholas being railroaded on circumstantial evidence?

   It is only as Sullivan describes the crime in court that we see the murderer is Marius Goring, a man in an overcoat and a trilby who receives a wound to his forehead. We follow him home to Scotland where we see a photo of Elizabeth on his piano, but we have no idea who he is or what their relationship is, or how he could ever be tied to her and traced.

   It doesn’t look good for Nicholas, and Phillipa, feeling guilty, begins to investigate on her own with aid from sympathetic Inspector Archer (Henry Edwards) from the Yard. With no photograph of Elizabeth, she can’t even advertise for someone who knew her and might provide another suspect beyond Nicholas. She hits one dead end after another, even traveling to Holland to speak to Elizabeth’s mother hoping to find a picture, but the hateful old lady destroyed them all.

   In the dead woman’s things Phillipa finds a sheet of music, but it leads nowhere until visiting her family she hears her nephew humming it. Seems his friend heard the music at a school in Scotland and he picked up from him humming it, and with that her only clue, Phillipa boards the train for the remote boarding school in a small Scottish village.

   A boarding school whose master is Mr. Sidney Fleming, Marius Goring.

   There is a top notch scene worthy of Hitchcock when Phillipa plays the music on the organ in the school’s chapel goading Fleming, and suddenly can no longer see him behind her in the mirror above her. It’s a slick take on the famous scene from the silent Phantom of the Opera with Lon Chaney, and it is almost as nerve wracking, a murder in the making prevented only by the arrival of the school caretaker, the sinister Goring advancing behind her shot at a slightly skewered angle.

   She eludes Fleming and finds a picture of Elizabeth that proves she was Mrs. Fleming at a shop owned by a cranky Scot’s photographer. She rushes to catch her train back to London before Nicholas appears in court and is convicted of murder and sentenced to hang, but Fleming is on the train with her, and the man in the compartment with her is deaf and can’t hear a thing as Fleming confesses his crime and plans to silence her.

   Phillipa is saved, and Fleming falls from the train to his death, the death he planned for her, but the photograph has been destroyed, and she has no proof when she goes to tell her story at the Yard.

   There is a nice twist then that comes a bit out of left field, but it’s not bad, and by then the suspense is ratcheted up enough that all you want is to be let off the hook. How you get off is of much less import. Some may be more bothered by it than I am, but if you pay attention you can see it is not entirely improbable and Neame only cheated a little.

   You may as well give up on the suspense genre if you are going to be too much of a stickler for logic. So long as they don’t just pull them out of a hat, I’m willing to be flexible.

   This is a fine suspense film that is gorgeous to look at, imaginatively cut, and shot and directed by the always interesting Neame. Whether Lean actually cut the film or aided in it or not I can’t say for sure, but someone did an outstanding job that is as important as the plot or characters to the final product.

   I have one or two mild bits of carping to add. I found Williams a bit old and not as charming as I would have liked as Nicholas, it is hard to watch it and not think how perfect James Mason, Stewart Granger, or Ray Milland would have been in the role, and they might have held back the revelation regarding Goring a bit later in the film since the untrustworthy narrator was working so well, or set up that twist a bit better, but those are minor at best

   I read the novel back when Bantam was reprinting many of Graham’s suspense novels following the bestselling Marnie and The Walking Stick. It was an instant favorite, and I spent years looking for this film, finding a mention in a book here or a still there, but until now never the full film.

   If you never read one of Graham’s finely wrought suspense novels I suggest you go out and find one. This, the two above, Greek Fire, or The Green Flash are all good choices by a master whose work is much like that of Robert Goddard, a master of civilized but nerve stretching suspense who doesn’t always go for the easy or happy endings.

   Catch this one though. It is a classic suspense film you may well never have heard of, and you should get to know it. If you thought you had seen all the great suspense films, this one adds one more to the list. It really is exceptionally good and more than worth any lover of the genre’s time.

 Posted by at 12:50 am
Jan 252015
 

PIER 13. 20th Century Fox, 1940. Lynn Bari, Lloyd Nolan, Joan Valerie, Douglas Fowley, Chick Chandler, Oscar O’Shea, Adrian Morris. Director: Eugene Forde.

   In this semi-spritely remake of Me and My Gal, a 1932 film starring Spencer Tracy and Joan Bennett, and directed by Raoul Walsh, it’s the chemistry between leading players Lloyd Nolan and Lynn Bari that keeps this otherwise ordinary crime film from sinking far below the water off Pier 13.

   He’s Danny Dolan, the new cop on the beat in the area, while she’s Sally Kelly, the wise-cracking and gun-chewing waitress whom he meets on his first day on the job. He’s attracted to her at once, there’s no doubt about that, but it takes her a while to show that she’s interested too.

   Trouble is, a notorious jewel thief is back in town and he has a hold on Sally’s sister, and he wants her help once again to pull off his next robbery. As I said earlier, there’s not too much to this as a crime story, and of course it all turns out well. It’s only the banter between the two lovers that makes this a movie worth watching. When sparks fly like this, there’s bound to be a fire.

 Posted by at 12:16 am
Jan 242015
 
Reviewed by Mark D. Nevins:


JOHN D. MacDONALD – The Empty Copper Sea. Lippincott, hardcover, 1978. Fawcett Gold Medal, paperback, 1979. Reprinted many times. TV movie: as Travis McGee, 1983 (with Sam Elliott & Gene Evans).

   Some years back an old friend of mine, now sadly passed on, advised me: “The Travis McGee novels are all pretty much interchangeable — until you get to The Empty Copper Sea, when things really begin to shift.” As I’ve been reading this series in order, slowly savoring each one, I admit I was looking forward to seeing what mysteries Copper would hold.

   On a narrative level, the differences are not significant, and in fact, in many ways, the plot of Copper mirrors that of its predecessor, The Dreadful Lemon Sky [reviewed here ]: Trav and Meyer work themselves into the social fabric of a small Florida town (one of JDM’s favorite themes) in order to clear the name and salvage the reputation of a friend who can’t do so for him/herself.

   However, in the case of Copper, Meyer takes more of a lead on the investigation, which gives McGee time to … reflect. And mull. And think about his life, and what it all means, and opportunities missed, and what might have been. We’ve seen philosophizing before (readers have written the series off due to a dislike of it), but for the first time the interior monologues seem to be more McGee’s than MacDonald’s — it’s as if McGee is starting to come off the page as a three-dimensional character.

   The novel is not slow, but the mood is melancholy, and there is a very different sort of ending [SPOILER ALERT] — the lead female character doesn’t die in the end. So, will she be back in the next episode? And is that one of the real markers of the change in the series’s direction?

   Some Travis McGee novels are Superb, and some are merely Good. I’d rate this one Very Good, and am restraining myself from ripping right into Green (hah): I promised I’d only read Travis in warm climates, so it will be late January in Key West.

   And, as always, some examples of JDM’s wonderful prose style:

   I woke up at two in the morning with the light still on and the Guide open and face down on my chest. I stayed awake just long enough to be sure I didn’t sink back into the same dream that awoke me. I had been underwater, swimming behind Van Harder, following the steady stroke of his swim fins and wondering why I had to be burdened with tanks, weights, and mask while he swam free. Then he turned and I saw small silver fish swimming in and out of his empty eye sockets.

and

   The world is full of contention and contentious people. They will not tell you the time of day or day of the month without their little display of hostility. I have argued with Meyer about it. It is more than a reflex, I think. It is an affirmation of importance. Each one is saying, “I can afford to be nasty to you because I don’t need and favors from you, buster.” It is also, perhaps, a warmed application of today’s necessity to be cool…

   If I were King of the World I would roam my kingdom in rags, incognito, dropping fortunes onto the people who are nice with no special reasons to be nice, and having my troops lop off the heads of the mean, small, embittered little bastards who try to inflate their self-esteem by stomping on yours. I would start the lopping among post-office employees, bank tellers, bus drivers, and pharmacists. I would go on to checkout clerks, bellboys, prowl-car cops, telephone operations, and U.S. Embassy clerks. By God, there would be so many heads rolling here and there, the world would look like a berserk bowling alley. Meyer says this shows a tad of hostility.

 Posted by at 6:29 am
Jan 242015
 
REVIEWED BY BARRY GARDNER:


THOMAS H. COOK – Mortal Memory. G. P. Putnam’s Sons, hardcover, 1993. Bantam, paperback, 1994.

   Cook’s three novels of Frank Clemons, first an Atlanta cop, then a New York investigator, are about as dark and grim a trio as you’re likely to find. I’ve only read one other book of his and it was of the same shade, so I didn’t come to this one expecting a lot of chuckles. Which was just as well, because there weren’t any.

   This is the story of a man whose father murdered his brother, sister, and mother when he was nine. He has buried most of the memories of his childhood, but not so deep they can’t be disinterred, and that is what happens when a lady comes to town to interview him for a book she is writing about family Killers. As he brings the past into the light, its shadows darken the present, and we move along with him to a conclusion that seems at once both inevitable and unforeseen.

   Cook’s prose reminds me at times of David Lindsey in its slow pace and somber tone. When done well — as they each do it — the combination can result in powerful and evocative storytelling. The protagonist is drawn clearly in some ways, and in others we understand him no better in the end than he does himself. The same is true of his parents and siblings. There are questions left unanswered — but then there are those at the end of everything aren’t there?

   The constant shifts between past and present were potentially distracting but well handled. I thought that the character of the writer was either too enigmatic or not faceless enough; as presented, she was vaguely unsatisfying. That is a relatively minor cavil though, and if you like this book well enough to read it through, you won’t be unaffected by it. Cook remains one of the masters of the dark side.

– Reprinted from Ah, Sweet Mysteries #9, September 1993.

 Posted by at 12:54 am
Jan 232015
 
Reviewed by JONATHAN LEWIS:          


DOWN DAKOTA WAY. Republic Pictures, 1949. Roy Rogers, Trigger, Dale Evans, Pat Brady, Montie Montana, Elisabeth Risdon, Byron Barr, James Cardwell, Roy Barcroft, Foy Willing & the Riders of the Purple Sage. Screenplay: John K. Butler & Sloan Nibley. Director: William Witney.

   Full disclosure: I’m definitely a William Witney aficionado. Plus, out of all the singing cowboys, I like Roy Rogers the best. After recently watching Under California Stars, which I reviewed here, I had moderately high expectations for Down Dakota Way. At the very least, I thought it would be an overall fun movie watching experience. In that sense, I was somewhat mistaken.

   Now, it’s not as if Down Dakota Way is a terrible movie or that the direction is necessarily of sub-par quality. No, it’s just that the movie lacks that real, but difficult to describe in words, sense of fun, lighthearted, escapism. In many ways, Down Dakota Way has all the characteristics of a dark, brooding, Hamlet-on-horseback Western but without the excellent acting and brilliant cinematography that make many “Western noirs” truly outstanding films.

   In this entry in the vast Roy Rogers cinematic corpus, Rogers ends up doing battle with a corrupt cattle baron willing to employ criminal methods to cover up the widespread presence of foot and mouth disease among his stock. Complicating matters is the fact that one of the baron’s hired gunmen, a ruthless little piece of work, happens to be the adopted son of Roy’s favorite childhood schoolteacher. Since the gunman’s father was also a criminal, there’s a bit of a morality play in this somewhat forgettable Western, a didactic lesson about raising your children right and not judging sons for the sins of their fathers.

   Still, when all is said and done, Down Dakota Way really just isn’t all that captivating. For a Witney-directed film, I’d expected some better rough and tumble fight choreography. That, too, was sadly lacking.

 Posted by at 3:20 am
Jan 222015
 
THE BACKWARD REVIEWER
William F. Deeck


ZELDA POPKIN – Death Wears a White Gardenia. J. B. Lippincott, hardcover, 1938. Red Arrow Books #5, digest-sized paperback. 1939. Dell #13, paperback, 1943.

   Mary Carner, department-store detective, appeared in five books, of which this is the first. At least in this novel, the store is Jeremiah Blankfort and Company in New York City, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary with an appearance by the Governor’s wife.

   Also adding to the festivities is the discovery of a corpse that turns out to have been Andrew McAndrew, credit manager of Blankfort’s and a chap, it would appear, given to blackmailing married customers who charge items for their girl friends. He also had his own girl friends, one of whom is carrying his child.

   The suspects are limited to those who were working in the store the previous evening before the anniversary celebration, but that is nonetheless a rather large number. McAndrew’s fed-up wife and brother-in-law and a junky but talented shoplifter add to the total.

   Mary Carner is convinced that the murder was committed by an employee of Blankfort’s. That part of the investigation is stymied since the store’s owner will not allow the employees to be questioned until the sale day is over. This is, after all, still in the depths of the Depression, and the department store’s finances are rather rocky.

   Better than Spencer Dean’s department-store mysteries, but not much better. One hopes that Popkin improved in her later novels.

— Reprinted from The MYSTERY FANcier, Vol. 12, No. 1, Winter 1990.


       The Mary Carner (Whittaker) series –

Death Wears a White Gardenia. Lippincott, 1938.
Murder in the Mist. Lippincott, 1940.

Time Off for Murder. Lippincott, 1940.
Dead Man’s Gift. Lippincott, 1941.

No Crime for a Lady. Lippincott, 1942.

   Zelda Popkn wrote two other works of crime fiction, So Much Blood (Lippincott, 1944), and A Death of Innocence (Lippincott, 1971) which was the basis of a TV movie of the same title. (CBS, 1971 with Shelley Winters and Arthur Kennedy).

   For more on the author herself, here’s a link to her Wikipedia page.

 Posted by at 9:25 pm
Jan 222015
 

WILLIAM HEUMAN – The Range Buster. Gold Medal 429. Paperback original; 1st printing, 1954; 2nd printing, Gold Medal 944, 1959.

   Sometimes it is difficult to find a hook with which to start a review, and this is one of those times. The Range Buster is a totally average western, but one that starts with a bang — Cole Faraday, fresh up from Texas to claim his dead brother’s ranch, is shot at from the house by someone inside with a rifle — and never really lets up until it’s over, with Cole having just prevailed over the bad guys — at great physical damage to himself — and getting the girl he never knew he was dreaming of all those years he making a living alone.

   What he finds that he’s walking into is a situation that always seems to arise when two big ranchers are competing for a smaller piece of land that has steady source of water — his brother’s — a feud that threatens all of the other smaller ranchers farther down the valley.

   Cole Faraday, skilled with a gun as well as mightily laconic with words, could be played by Clint Eastwood. The owner of one of the big ranches could be played by Lee J. Cobb, while the boss of the Pine Tree, Thalia Mulvane — a tough-minded but outwardly honest woman — well, if Ava Gardner ever was a blonde, she’d fit the part perfectly.

   Playing the gunhand who seems to have a grudge against Cole from the start, none other than Lee Marvin. The other girl, young and wholesome, whom Cole is attracted to, perhaps Gloria Talbot, while Stub McKay, the only remaining cowboy on Cole’s brother’s ranch, well why not Stubby Kaye

   Besides a western, and a solid one at that, William Heuman’s story is also both a romance (see above) and a detective story. Who killed Cole’s brother, or rather, perhaps, who was he working for? The result is not spectacular in any sense, but as you can tell, it might make for a fairly good movie.

Bibliographic Notes:   William Heuman’s career in writing western fiction began with the pulp magazines, circa 1944, but when the pulps began to die out and Gold Medal came along, offering writers a new option, the paperback original, Heuman jumped on board almost immediately.

   Here’s tentative list of his work for Gold Medal:

Guns at Broken Bow, 1950.
Hunt the Man Down, 1951.
Roll the Wagons, 1951.
Red Runs the River, 1951.
Secret of Death Valley, 1952.
Keelboats North, 1953.
On to Santa Fe, 1953.
The Range Buster, 1954.
Ride for Texas, 1954.
Wagon Train West, 1955.
Stagecoach West, 1957.
Violence Valley, 1957.
Heller from Texas, 1957.

   Following and during his output from Gold Medal, Heuman continued writing westerns in paperback for Ace and Avon along with hardcovers for Avalon, many of those probably reprinted in paperback also.

 Posted by at 1:12 am
Jan 212015
 
Reviewed by DAVID VINEYARD:          


MARY STEWART – The Ivy Tree. Hodder & Stoughton, UK, hardcover, 1961. M. S. Mill/William Morrow, US, hardcover, 1961. Fawcett Crest R590, US, paperback, January 1963. Reprinted many times.

   The landing was full of sunlight. A bee was trapped, and blundering with a deep hum, against the window. The sound was soporific, dreamy, drowning time. It belonged to a thousand summer afternoons, all the same, long, sun-drenched, lazily full of sleep …

   Time ran down to nothing; stood still; ran back …

   The moment snapped.

   Before beginning properly I need to make a statement: Mary Stewart is one of my favorite writers. She is not one of my favorite women writers, one of my favorite suspense novelists, one of my favorite British writers, or one of any other sub-division. She is Mary Stewart and one my favorite writers and storytellers bar none.

   Don’t expect an even-handed or unbiased review.

   Aside from her brilliant Merlin trilogy her novels — The Moonspinners, My Brother Michael, Airs Above The Ground, The Gabriel Hounds, This Rough Magic, Nine Coaches Waiting, Wild Fire at Midnight — are some of my favorite works of the period she wrote in. She was a superb storyteller in the Buchan and Stevenson tradition as much as that of Daphne duMaurier.

   Ironically I am not a great fan of the woman in danger genre that dates back the the Gothic era of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century. Beyond the classics like the Bronte’s, Collins, LeFanu, and duMaurier, this is a gray area for me. I’m not a fan of Mary Roberts Rinehart but I like Ethel Lina White; I admire some of Mignon G. Eberhart’s books but don’t want a steady diet of them. I seldom dipped into the lesser Gothic era of the sixties and all those superbly gowned damsels in danger and stormy backgrounds haunting the paperback kiosks. In fact, only if the names Elizabeth Peters are Mary Stewart were among them.

   For that reason The Ivy Tree is an odd one for me to admire so much, because save for Nine Coaches Waiting, it is closest to a standard Gothic of any of her thrillers.

   Taking a note from Daphne DuMaurier (consiously) it opens with one of those lines that will be repeated at the end.

   I might have been alone in a painted landscape. The sky was sky was still and blue, and the high cauliflower clouds over towards the south seem to hang without movement.

   That quality of writing is another reason I love Stewart.

   Mary Grey is the narrator, she is a Canadian girl, an orphan, living and working in England in a dreary room with an uncertain future, and she is seated on a bit of the old Roman wall, Hadrian’s Wall, running the length of Northumberland, waiting for her lover Adam who lives nearby. It is someone else who shows up though. A wild angry young man who approaches her threateningly: “You’ve got a nerve … haven’t you? After all these years walking in as calm as you please, and in broad daylight!”

   His name is Con Winslow and he soon learns his mistake, she isn’t his hated cousin Annabel Winslow, but she is almost her double. A remarkable resemblance.

   Mary Grey returns to London after her disappointing rendezvous, returns to her dull life, but a knock on her door turns out to be Lisa Dermott, Con’s sister, come to see for herself, and once she has seen with a proposal that seems suited to Mary Grey with no prospects of a future: Become Annabel Winslow. It’s not really fraud, she would only be assuring the right people inherited what they were entitled to.

   There is an estate called Whitescar and it isn’t far from the once fabulous House of Forrest, as in Adam Forrest, the Adam Mary was waiting at on that piece of Roman Wall. There is a prospect of comfort, wealth, even romance. Of course its an absurd idea, but the more Lisa talks the more it seems as if it might work.

   The plot isn’t new. Tey used it in Brat Farrar and du Maurier in The Scapegoat. There are actual incidents like the Anastasia impersonation and the infamous Tichborne Claimant, but Stewart’s skill are such you needn’t worry how she will handle things. Anthony Boucher considered her to be as good as anyone writing thrillers and suspense in her era, and I agree.

   There is the dying old man who has waited for Annabel to return, a stallion called Rowan only Annabel/Mary can ride, and of course Adam will come back at the worst possible moment to provide the catalyst for the tragedy to follow.

   Mary marries Con and together they will be wealthy, but nothing is quite what it seems, and though Mary was waiting for Adam it turns out Mary Grey never met him, he was Annabel’s lover… And the old ivy tree where he once left a note she never saw when she left, a misunderstanding that may be corrected too late. If Adam ever learns her secret, her real secret.

   The ivy tree is the center for much of the novels action and its heart.

   Tension and mystery swirl about her with fate and danger equally at play. Con is insanely jealous and if she isn’t Mary Grey she threatens all his plans for Whitescar and her death would be all too simple. Just a horseshoe in Rowan’s stall. Everyone would assume the wild stallion killed her. After all the animal is unstable dangerous, he could easily turn on his mistress.

   What set Mary Stewart apart from the usual women in danger writers was more than just the quality of her writing, it was her voice, because she wasn’t just a good suspense novelist. Mary Stewart’s voice was that of a female Buchan or Household and when it came to describing the wild places, rough country, and the story of chase and pursuit she was just as sure a hand.

   I sat in the sun and thought. Nothing definite, but if I had been asked to define my thoughts they would have all come to one word. England. This turf, this sky, the heartsease in the grass; the old lines of ridge and furrow, and the still older ghost of Roman road and Wall; the ordered spare beauty of the northern fells; this, in front of me now, was England. This other Eden, demi-paradise, this dear dear land.

   I suppose it sounds sexist, but as female as her heroines are, there is a practical masculine side to a Mary Stewart heroine. They aren’t prone to hysterics or unfounded fears. They are less likely to jump at a sudden movement in the dark than hit it with something heavy. They think even when they are frightened, and they don’t wait around for anyone on a white horse to rescue them.

   The Mary Stewart heroine isn’t fainting, dainty, or the last one in on what’s happening. That quality separates Stewart from the pack as much as her at time lyric voice. Though different in style, like Helen MacInnes, Stewart was not really part of the woman in danger or romantic suspense sub-genre. She was a first class thriller writer and because there is a timeless quality to her books woven around the past intermingled with the present that means they still read well and hold up today.

   I might have been alone in a painted landscape.

   If you have ever read Mary Stewart you’ll want to know what follows.

 Posted by at 8:25 pm
Jan 212015
 
Reviewed by DAN STUMPF:         


FOG ISLAND. PRC Pictures, 1945. George Zucco, Lionel Atwill, Jerome Cowan, Sharon Douglas, Veda Ann Borg, John Whitney, Jacqueline DeWit, Ian Keith. Director: Terry O. Morse.

   It’s a bit of a jump from the mega-million conceits of The Firm [reviewed here ] to the marginal virtues of Fog Island, which cost about a buck-ninety-five to churn out and looks it, but here is a film to sink your teeth into; a stylish creaky Old-Dark-House thriller directed at penurious pace by someone named Terry Morse and offering a hand-picked cast of cinematic lesser-knowns including George Zucco, Lionel Atwill, Ian Keith, Veda Ann Borg and Jerome Cowan (best remembered as the short-lived half of the Spade-Archer partnership in The Maltese Falcon) at his slimiest.

   Before going on to rave about this thing, I should add perhaps that by nomic standards, Fog Island doesn’t amount to much. The script makes very little sense at ail, the sets – when there are any – seem about to topple any moment, and the whole affair is served up with a rushed look that seems cheap-jack even by PRC’s bottom-of-the-trash-can standards. But all of this detracts not a whit from the energy and charm of this little effort.

   Indeed they even help. Like the best efforts of Edgar Ulmer (a workhorse in the PRC stable himself), Fog Island amazes the viewer by the very fact of its existence. Watching it is like seeing a derelict car chug its clanking way down a super-highway – you can’t believe it’s actually moving right there in front of you much less understand what Keeps it going.

   For the record, Fog Island concerns itself with the efforts of recently-paroled embezzler Zucco to revenge himself on his unindicted co-conspirators, and their efforts to prise out of him the money they’re sure he squirreled away.

   As the plot unspools, hints are dropped here and there that Zucco and/or some of his cronies may or may not be guilty, but these are mostly left unresolved in the haste to get this thing in the can. What’s left is brilliantly atmospheric and astonishingly grim as Zucco, Atwill et. al. struggle, grasp and claw at each other to see who will emerge Wealthy… or Alive, anyway. Oh there’s a romantic sub-plot stuck in there somewhere, but Director Morse and writer Pierre Gendron (who worked on Ulmer’s masterful Bluebeard) clearly save most of their interest for the Baddies – who are all played by much more interesting actors anyway.

   The big Confrontation scene where Zucco and Atwill pull out all the dramatic stops and hammer away at each other (accent on Ham) with histrionic abandon has – no kidding – Real Chemistry, made all the more compelling by being shot practically in the dark to hide the cheapo sets. With nothing to distract us, the eyes are drawn irresistibly to the spectacle of two full-blooded (to put it mildly) performers face-to face and toe-to-toe in the thespic equivalent of a Knock-down drag-out prize fight.

   After this emotional high point, Fog Island drags,lurches and stumbles a bit to a conclusion that as I say, is surprisingly grim and well-realized for a B-Horror/Mystery Movie. The glimpse of impressive artistry someone heaped on this obscure thing while no one was looking makes me despair of facile, expensive things like The Firm.

   Which is not to say that Fog Island is as entertaining as the other. It isn’t. The only thing it has going for it is the gratuitous energy and enthusiasm of its creators. Which is enough for me.

 Posted by at 3:52 am
Jan 202015
 

THE TALL T. Columbia Pictures, 1957. Randolph Scott, Richard Boone, Maureen O’Sullivan, Arthur Hunnicutt, Skip Homeier, Henry Silva, John Hubbard, Robert Burton. Screenplay by Burt Kennedy, based on the story “The Captives,” by Elmore Leonard, published in Argosy, February 1955. Director: Budd Boetticher.

   To start off with, let me tell you that this is one of my favorite Western films of all time. I won’t tell you that it’s number one, because I’ll be honest with you as well as myself and say that it isn’t, but it’s in the top five.

   In part it’s the actors. Randolph Scott isn’t a lawman doing his job with professional dignity and humor, a common role he had in westerns. In The Tall T he’s a struggling former cowhand, no more than that, but he was good at his job. But now he’s living alone and struggling to make a go of his own small ranch, as honest with himself and others as the day is long.

   Richard Boone is the villain of the piece, who along with a pair of low-life outlaws he rides with (Skip Homeier and Henry Silva) holds up a stage only to find that it’s not the regularly scheduled one, but one chartered by the man who married the plain-looking daughter of the richest man in the territory, a rabbit of a man who gives up his wife as part of a ransom scheme to save his own hide. Scott, who just happens to be on the stagecoach, is caught up in the plan and as chance would have it, is made a captive too.

   As their captors, Richard Boone and his two cohorts are as murderous and vicious as they come. For some reason, though, Boone lets the yahoos he associates with do all the shooting, and as he confesses to Scott over an open fire, he has a wish to have a piece of land himself. Only Richard Boone could have played the part. A killer who aches with the need for someone intelligent to talk to.

   I don’t know how they managed to make Maureen O’Sullivan so plain looking, but she is, and at length she admits that she her knows exactly why her new husband married her. But it’s Randolph Scott who makes the movie work. Rugged, steely-eyed and quiet-talking, but with little ambition more than to make a living on his own, he’s also more than OK with a gun, a fact that in the end turns out to be rather important.

   Other than the actors, though, it is the storytelling, the combination of script and directing, that simply shines. The budget probably wasn’t all that large, but the story simply flows, with no wasted moments, every scene essential to the story. This is a movie that’s down to earth and real, and made by professionals on both sides of the camera.

   As for Elmore Leonard’s story, the one the movie is based on, you don’t have to read more than two or three pages before you know where the timing and the pacing of the movie came from.

   Most of the movie is taken straight from the story, at most only a long novelette, with only a couple of substantial changes. The campfire scene between Scott and Boone referred to above was added, and the way Scott and the woman defeat their captors was re-orchestrated, both changes for the better.

   Everyone agrees that Elmore Leonard’s crime fiction was always the best around, but to my mind, his western fiction, which came along earlier, is even better. That includes “The Captives,” beyond a doubt, and the movie is even better yet. To my mind, near perfect.

 Posted by at 2:07 am