Sep 302014
 

WESTERN UNION. 20th Century Fox, 1941. Robert Young, Randolph Scott, Dean Jagger, Virginia Gilmore, John Carradine, Slim Summerville, Chill Wills, Barton MacLane. Based on the novel by Zane Grey. Director: Fritz Lang.

   I don’t know if you spotted it right off, without my pointing it out to you, but if you did and it took you aback, just a little, I don’t blame you. But yes, indeed, Robert Young got top billing in this colorful tale of a crew of Western Union workers constructing a telegraph line from East to West across the United States, mile by mile.

   The movie is based on the novel by Zane Grey from 1939. The story is told in first person by Wayne Cameron, a tenderfoot fellow from Boston who has made his way west to make his way in the world. In the movie his name is Richard Blake, and naturally enough, he’s the fellow that Robert Young plays.

   But neither the top billing (in the movie) or the primary protagonist (in the book) make a bit of difference. This is Randolph Scott’s film all the way, from beginning to a somewhat quizzical end. Scott plays a cowpoke named Vance Shaw in both book and movie, but in the film he’s an outlaw, making his first appearance sitting in the saddle against a clear blue sky before making his escape from a posse on his trail by riding through and scattering a large buffalo head, filmed in beautiful closeup Technicolor.

   From here the book and film diverge considerably, although the head construction engineer for the crew working for Western Union and the new telegraph line is named Creighton in both (Dean Jagger in the movie) and both Scott and Young sign up. In the movie a rivalry between the two is fanned by their mutual interest in Creighton’s sister (Virginia Gilmore), complicated by the fact that Shaw’s brother (Barton MacLane) is still on the outlaw trail and determined to prevent the telegraph line from going through.

   Personally I think the movie would have been a lot better without the comedy antics of Chill Wills and (especially) Slim Summerville, but otherwise there’s action aplenty, and some very good acting on the part of Randolph Scott, torn between his loyalty to his brother and getting the telegraph line through. This wasn’t his first western role, but the many closeups he has this film show him well on his way to becoming the hard-bitten icon of the West he was soon to be.

   I’d also have preferred a different ending. Not that there’s anything wrong with the one we have, but this one jarred me a little, and it may you as well.

 Posted by at 9:19 pm
Sep 302014
 
Reviewed by DAVID VINEYARD:         


JON STEELE – The Watchers: Book I of the Angelus Trilogy. Blue Rider Press, hardcover, May 2012. Signet, paperback, April 2013.

   “C’est le guet! Il’ a sonne l’heure! Il a sonne l’heure!”

   According to Jon Steele, the author of this massive first volume in a trilogy, those are the last words you will hear, a whispered guide to the other side, administered by angels on Earth. They are also key to this outstanding book that is equally fantasy, mystery, action thriller, and a character study of three wounded people — well, at least one of them is just a person, the others not so much so.

   The place is Lausanne, in and around the Great Cathedral. The three people are Marc Rochat, the somewhat simple-minded watchman who guards the cathedral; Katherine Taylor, a tough-minded sexually robust call girl caught up in things she doesn’t understand; and Jay Harper, a private detective who awakens in Lausanne with no idea how he got there or why he is there, but driven to solve a series of grisly murders in the city.

   For Marc Rochat. it all begins when a beautiful angel draws him from out of the shadows. To Marc, she is the angel his mother promised him when he was young.

   “Ten bells echoed down the empty street …” is how we meet Jay Harper, who has no idea why he is in Lausanne. All he knows is that he is Jay Michael Harper, age 31, and carries a card that reads his name and Guardian Services Limited, and that he is a freelance security expert.

   He saw Lausanne Cathedral reaching for the clouds. Something caught his eye in the belfry — something in the shadows of the arches and pillars. Bright as firelight floating from side to side. The light went away and the floodlights went black.

   That light is key to the mystery at hand, but it is a deeper and far older mystery than mere murder. Forces are at play which have warred for millenia and may fight their final battle in beautiful Lausanne.

   There is the Inspector, Monsieur Gabriel, and tough beautiful Officer Janssen and the sinister Komarovsky, who lures Katherine into a small private online sex show from hell for the mysterious Two Hundred, and who knows exactly who and what Jay Harper is. Those are a few of the elements of the mystery.

   I’m trying not to give too much away. There are many elements: a dying soldier in WWI, brutal murders, a voyeuristic online sex cult, the identity of the Two Hundred, the salvation of Katherine and why her salvation is key to everything, the true nature and mission of Jay Harper, the secret of Marc Rochat, the enigmatic Monsieur Gabriel, and I mustn’t forget Katherine’s cat Monsieur Booty.

   At risk, a prize that must be protected by Marc, Katherine, and Harper at all costs in a final confrontation with evil on the roof of the Lausanne Cathedral where no less is at stake than the very light of creation entrusted to a simple minded watchman — or is he?

   I suppose how you feel about this book will depend on your fancy for dark fantasy, though it is also a detective story, complete in itself, but with mystery enough left for two more volumes. It is also a study in three very different people with very similar fates, all bound together by forces they can only vaguely comprehend, and motives that are still partially obscured at the novels end.

   This is a big book, 743 pages in paperback, so if you don’t like thick books three this length may slow you down a bit. I can tell you I have read Book I and Book II (Angel City) and Steele has yet to let me down or keep me anything but enthralled, the second volume ending in a cliff hanger that still has my teeth gritted. There are passages of simply lovely prose, storytelling skills too rarely seen these days, and moments of power here that will move the stoniest readers heart.

   The Watchers reminded me of the kind of power that C. S. Lewis and Charles Williams once achieved in their allegorical novels, but Steele is a modern writer, and this is a very grown up book about far more than a war spilled out of the heavens onto Earth. There is still another volume to go before we find out Steele’s full plan, but I have come to trust he will bring it off, and even if he fails The Watchers stands as a brilliant one of a kind novel that fulfills the one goal so few books today seem capable of accomplishing: No matter how much I wanted to know what happens next, I didn’t want it to end.

   “C’est le guet! Il a sonne l’heure! Il a sonne l’heure!”

 Posted by at 6:08 pm
Sep 292014
 
Reviewed by JONATHAN LEWIS:         


CHEYENNE. Warner Brothers, 1947. Dennis Morgan, Jane Wyman, Janis Paige, Bruce Bennett, Alan Hale, Arthur Kennedy, John Ridgely, Barton MacLane, Tom Tyle, Bob Steele. Screenwrters: Alan LeMay & Thames Williamson, based on the story “The Wyoming Kid” by Paul I. Wellman. Director: Raoul Walsh.

   Cheyenne is a movie with an identity crisis. It’s a Western, but also a mystery. It’s a comedy, but it feels like a would-be musical, especially given the fact that the score by Max Steiner occasionally overwhelms the dialogue and the plot. There are some gritty fight sequences, but also ridiculously light, borderline risqué, romantic moments.

   And with a screenplay by Western writer Alan LeMay and direction by Warner Brothers’ go-to guy for action films, Raoul Walsh, you might think you’re in for a psychological Western. But you’d be wrong. Cheyenne is much more typical of a late 1940s Western, one that doesn’t push the envelope very far.

   In that sense, the casting of Dennis Morgan and Jane Wyman, talented actors both, as the leads was a perfectly good decision. Plus what’s not to like about Alan Hale as Fred Durkin, a goofy, yellow Wyoming lawman?

   Morgan portrays James Wylie, a gentleman gambler and a cheat. After getting himself into a pickle in Laramie, he’s faced with a choice. Either work for the law or be sent back to Nevada to face justice for some past misdeed. Wylie’s a smart man and quite debonair. He chooses to work for the law, an easy choice. His mission: seek out a mysterious bandit named The Poet who is stealing from the Wells Fargo Stage Line.

   Wylie heads from Laramie to Cheyenne, encountering a group of bandits led by a man named Sundance (Arthur Kennedy) along the way. He also makes the acquaintance of a lovely young woman, Ann Kincaid (Wyman) who engages him in a bit of push and pull deception and flirtation.

   Theirs is a Western battle of the sexes, one that would be pulled off with much better effect by John Wayne and Angie Dickinson in Howard Hawks’ Rio Bravo (1959). There’s just not that much visible chemistry between these two leads. Morgan just isn’t gritty enough for a Western hero.

   Cheyenne does have some mystery, but not all that much. There’s quite a bit of mistaken identities and assumed identities, lies big and small. It doesn’t take all that long, however, to figure out that Wells Fargo employee, Ed Landers (Bruce Bennett) is up to no good or that saloon girl, Emily Carson (Janis Paige) is going to play an important role in the film.

Altogether, it’s a pleasant enough affair. Someone should just have turned down the musical fanfare a bit.

 Posted by at 11:59 pm
Sep 272014
 

HORROR ISLAND. Universal Pictures, 1941. Dick Foran, Leo Carrillo, Peggy Moran, Fuzzy Knight, John Eldredge, Lewis Howard, Hobart Cavanaugh, Walter Catlett, Ralf Harolde, Iris Adrian. Director: George Waggner.

   Sometimes you’re expecting one thing and you get something else. Not all the time, not most of the time. It’s actually rather seldom, and sometimes it doesn’t turn out well at all. But when it does — and I imagine you’ve guessed by now that this is one of those times — it’s makes you feel great just to be able to stand up and tell other people about it.

   Or maybe just a little foolish.

   Horror Island may not be to all tastes. You have to be fond of creaky but often still entertaining tales of old dark houses or mansions, isolated for one reason or another from the rest of the world — snowbound, stormbound (lots of thunder and lightning), or the like — filled with strangers, mostly, with some kind of evil or sinister presence among them, or controlling them in weird or evil ways for some nefarious purpose unknown.

   And — of course! — lots of hidden panels and secret passageways, suits of armor perhaps with eyes peering out from within, painting with peepholes and in active use. You know what I mean. It’s all kind of silly and fun, except when the dead bodies start to pile up, at which point your sense of make believe has to kick in. The actors are not taking this all very seriously, so why should you?

   What makes Horror Island a little different is that it takes place on (guess what) an island, where two enterprising entrepreneurs (Dick Foran and Fuzzy Knight) have created a tourist trap mystery-adventure cruise, complete with a castle-like mansion and all the trimmings (see above). And naturally a treasure map that helps attract a small boatful of various individuals of both genders and with all kinds of motives (not all of them good).

   Even though this came in a boxset of DVDs entitled Universal Horror: Classic Movie Archive (along with such non-ringers as The Black Cat, Man Made Monster, Night Monster and Captive Wild Woman), you will noticed that I have classified this as a comedy as well as a mystery. And so it is, and if you’re in the same mindset as I am, it’s a gem.

 Posted by at 8:01 pm
Sep 272014
 
Reviewed by JONATHAN LEWIS:         


THE JUGGLER. Columbia Pictures, 1953. Kirk Douglas, Milly Vitale, Paul Stewart, Joseph Walsh, Alf Kjellin, Beverly Washburn, Charles Lane. Director: Edward Dmytryk.

   The Juggler is a good, although deeply unsettling, film about a Holocaust survivor with what we’d now likely call post-traumatic stress. Directed by Edward Dmytryk, this Stanley Kramer production stars Kirk Douglas (born Isser Danielovitch) as Hans Muller, a German Jewish refugee who arrives in Israel in 1949, just after the nascent Jewish state had defeated several invading Arab armies.

   The film’s title comes from Muller’s profession. Prior to his traumatic experiences in concentration camps and losing his wife in the war, he was a famous juggler and entertainer in Germany. Muller (Douglas) is the definition of a sad clown, a man who, from the outside looking in, jokes around to cheer others up.

   But he’s deeply scarred man inside, plagued by guilt for not leaving Germany earlier. (For historical purposes, it’s interesting to note that Muller’s character is an assimilated German Jew rather than an Eastern European Jew from Poland or Russia, people who didn’t face the same historical choices as did German Jews, many of whom did emigrate to Palestine in the 1930s.) After a tense encounter with a refugee camp doctor who urges Muller to seek the aid of a psychiatrist, Muller flees the confines of the Israeli resettlement camp for the city of Haifa.

   While walking on a city street, Muller witnesses a policeman talking to another man. This triggers something terrible inside of him. He begins to run. In a vividly realized scene, a frantic Muller courses down stone steps. The policeman, who we soon learn was looking for a suspect, chases after him. In a fit of fear and rage, Muller strikes the policeman with his feet, seriously injuring the Israeli cop.

   Enter Israeli investigator, Karni (Paul Stewart). Karni, along with a witness, seek to track down the man responsible for the injured Haifa cop. The trail leads them to the resettlement camp and eventually they have a face and a name. That man’s name is Muller. Karni is resolute. He will get his man.

   In the meantime, Muller has teamed up with an Israeli orphan boy by the name of Josh. The two of them hike through the beautiful countryside of northern Israel, eventually settling in at an Israeli kibbutz close to the Syrian border.

   It’s there that Muller encounters Yael (Milly Vitale), a woman who is willing to give the hurt Muller a second chance at life. When Karni shows up, however, she realizes just how troubled a man her love really is. Muller barricades himself in one of the kibbutz’s buildings, loaded rifle in hand.

   The final showdown is in some ways reminiscent of Edward Dmytryk’s The Sniper (1952), also produced by Stanley Kramer. In that film, a deeply troubled war veteran goes on a killing spree in San Francisco, eventually holing himself up in a small boarding house room. In The Juggler, the protagonist/anti-hero isn’t responsible for murdering anyone, so much as for failing to acknowledge how desperate in need of help he really is.

   While The Juggler was not a commercial success and is at times, a very uneven film, it remains an important work. It should be of particular interest to persons interested in Kirk Douglas’s filmography. Douglas is really good here, delivering his performance with a mixture of drama, humor, and pathos. His fits of anger seem extraordinarily real and have an unnerving sense about them.

Indeed, there’s almost something noir about Muller’s plight. He’s a man who commits a crime and is hunted by the police. But at the end of the day, he’s hunted – and haunted – by so much more than a lone Israeli detective. It’s not the easiest film to watch, but it’s worth the effort.

 Posted by at 2:01 am
Sep 262014
 
REVIEWED BY J. RANDOLPH COX:         


DELL SHANNON – Chance to Kill. William Morrow, hardcover, 1967. Pyramid T2388, paperback, January 1971.

   After reading Marv Lachman’s review of Dell Shannon’s Mark of Murder (and see the comments following), I was prompted to give this one a try again, a book I hadn’t read in over 45 years, Chance to Kill.

   As a police procedural it deals with more than a single murder. To quote the dust jacket blurb: “Two heist men wanted for double homicide…the body of a young punk in an alley…the corpse of a girl in a dry riverbed … in fact, everything more or less routine for Lt. Luis Mendoza and his colleagues in the Los Angeles Police Department.”

   Then things go really bad because the murdered girl is a policewoman and she is black. (Of course, in 1967 that meant referring to her as Negro.) Interesting characters and situations. So many of them are described as “nice and ordinary.” The quest for another Kipling for Mendoza’s collection comes up from time to time, but seems to serve no purpose except to add a new dimension to his character, along with references to his family when he goes home at the end of the day.

   His dialogue is sprinkled with Spanish phrases to show he is Latino. He picks up a handful of Kipling titles and quotes from him (the only thing Kipling means to his co-worker Hackett is the phrase “the white man’s burden”).

   I found the prices of things in 1967 interesting. Was everything that affordable in 1967? I didn’t think so at the time. The solution is revealed plausibly and points to a character I hadn’t really noticed. Mendoza ends by going home to his family, his wife, the twins, the cats, and there is a Kipling he has yet to read. Someone told him there was a story in it with a message about doing a good job. He might take the day off and read that.

   Not much politics here, but there is a hint of how liberal things are getting, but you find that in a lot of popular fiction in 1967. Linington/Shannon was active in the John Birch Society. Someday I’ll have to look at some of the Mendoza titles on my shelves from the later years.

 Posted by at 7:04 pm
Sep 262014
 
REVIEWED BY DAN STUMPF:         


MAX CARTER – Call Me Killer! Avon A542, paperback original, 1953.

   The damnedest thing I’ve read in a long time (is the title an homage to Melville or Merman?) not least because I can’t find any references to “Max Carter” and I can’t say whether he wrote anything else, used another pen name or just appeared, dropped this bombshell and stole softly into the pulp-paper night.

   The story starts with the narrator, Ed Dirke, a one-time successful playwright being released from prison after a seven-year stretch for murdering his girlfriend. In a quick flashback, Dirke tells us how his brother Carl manipulated him into the killing, and lets us know he’s out to settle things Old-Testament-style with a life for a life.

   Turns out Dirk’s brother won’t play Abel to his Cain all that easily though; Carl is a big-time buyer-and-seller of anything profitable, and he’s surrounded himself with a lot of big and well-armed disciples, as well as a few well-cantilevered dames with moves that would make a Bishop kick a hole in a stained glass window, as the man says.

   Come to think of it, there’s only one woman in the whole book who keeps her clothes on for more than a couple pages, and like a hero out of Spillane, Dirke is what they call “sexually active” these days whenever he’s not being beaten up, bound, shot-at or merely propositioned.

   Pretty standard stuff so far, but Dirke isn’t your average paperback tough-guy. He’s more writer than fighter, and his relationship with his brother borders on the unnatural. He’s also subject to blackouts, and his actions take a turn very early on that changes the reader’s whole outlook on the tale as we realize that our hero may be hallucinating as much as he’s narrating.

   I won’t give any more away, except to say that the action is routine paperback riot, no better or worse than a dozen other hard-boiled histories, but Carter puts a subversive enough edge to it that I wish I knew who-the-hell he was.

 Posted by at 1:31 am
Sep 252014
 
Reviewed by DAVID VINEYARD:         


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.

 Posted by at 11:20 pm
Sep 252014
 
A 1001 MIDNIGHTS Review
by Francis M. Nevins


WILLIAM ARDEN – A Dark Power. Dodd Mead, hardcover, 1968. Berkley, paperback, 1970.

   During the same years he was writing the Dan Fortune private-eye novels under his Michael Collins by-line, Dennis Lynds took on the pseudonym William Arden and launched another series, this one dealing with industrial spy and PI-in-spite-of-himself Kane Jackson.

   The five Jackson novels are written in a spare, unadorned third-person style reminiscent of Dashiell Hammett’s, and their protagonist is very much the hard-bitten operative, without the leavening of compassion one finds in other Lynds detectives, like Dan Fortune or Paul Shaw.

   Most of the Jackson exploits are distinguished by their setting in the jungle of high-level capitalism, principally in the chemical, metallurgical, and pharmaceutical industries where Lynds worked as a trade-publications editor before turning to fiction.

   In A Dark Power, first and freshest of the series, Jackson is hired by a New Jersey pharmaceutical combine to recover a missing sample of a drug potentially worth millions. The trail leads through the mazes of interoffice love affairs and power struggles, and several corpses are strewn along the path.

   Although Lynds tends to get lost in his own plot labyrinths, this time he keeps the story line under firm control, meshing counterplots with fine precision, skillfully portraying people trapped by their own drives, and capping the action with a double surprise climax. Jackson reaches the truth by clever guesswork rather than reasoning, but this is the only weakness in one of the best PI novels of the Sixties.

   Of the four later Jackson exploits, the most interesting is Die to a Distant Drum (1972), which, like Lynds’s novels as by Mark Sadler, takes as background the turmoil of the Vietnam era. Jackson poses as a revolutionary bomb-maker and joins a Weatherman faction in order to infiltrate a chemical plant and bring out certain evidence of industrial piracy. The result, as usual with Lynds under whatever by-line, is a fine and thoughtful thriller.

         ———
   Reprinted with permission from 1001 Midnights, edited by Bill Pronzini & Marcia Muller and published by The Battered Silicon Dispatch Box, 2007.   Copyright © 1986, 2007 by the Pronzini-Muller Family Trust.

      The Kane Jackson series –

A Dark Power. Dodd, 1968.
Deal in Violence. Dodd, 1969.
The Goliath Scheme. Dodd, 1970.

Die to a Distant Drum. Dodd, 1972.
Deadly Legacy. Dodd, 1973.

 Posted by at 2:42 am