Oct 182014
 
Reviewed by JONATHAN LEWIS:         


EDGE OF DARKNESS. Warner Brothers, 1943. Errol Flynn, Ann Sheridan, Walter Huston, Nancy Coleman, Helmut Dantine, Judith Anderson, Ruth Gordon, John Beal, Morris Carnovsky. Director: Lewis Milestone.

   Many of Errol Flynn’s movies have a sense of lightness to them. That’s often what makes them such watchable, timeless films. Flynn is most often cast alongside two comical companions or in singular pursuit of a lovely girl who initially despises him, but eventually comes to love him.

   He’s the gentleman forced into fighting for a just cause. Think the swashbuckling Captain Blood (1935) or the epic, iconic Dodge City (1939). They are adventure stories, where Flynn portrays the elegant good guy who defeats the bad guy and, in the end, gets the girl. But there’s a sense that all the fisticuffs and gunfighting have been in good fun, even if more than a few people have gotten banged up or shot down along the way.

   Edge of Darkness, while an exceptionally good war movie, is neither fun, nor would one would call a happy film. Indeed, it’s one Errol Flynn movie where he doesn’t portray a particularly elegant man and there aren’t any bad guys, at least not in the lighthearted sense of the term.

   In Edge of Darkness, a story about Norwegian resistance fighters during the Second World War, the proverbial bad guys – the Nazis – aren’t merely bad. They are evil. And they can’t be reasoned with, tricked into changing their ways, or laughed aside. They must be killed. It’s this premise, coupled with great cinematography and superb performances by Flynn, Ann Sheridan, Walter Huston, and Helmut Dantine, that set this beautifully gritty Warner Brothers war film apart from other anti-Nazi films of the era.

   Directed by Lewis Milestone with a script by Robert Rossen, Edge of Darkness is a very powerful film about a simple man’s determination to free his country from the grip of totalitarianism. Flynn portrays Gunnar Brogge, a Norwegian resistance leader in the small fishing village of Trollness. He’s determined to get weapons from the British and to use them to strike against the Nazis occupying his town.

   Brogge’s commitment to methodical planning is tested when he discovers that a Nazi soldier violated his girlfriend, Karen Stensgard (Ann Sheridan). Further straining the already tense situation is the fact that Karen’s brother collaborated with the Nazis in Oslo and that her father, Dr. Martin Stensgard (Huston) is not fully committed to violent action against the German invaders.

   There are some very tense moments in this well-acted film, including a scene in which Brogge, along with others, is forced to dig his own grave — literally. The most memorable scene in the film, however, may belong to actor Morris Carnovksy, a veteran of the Yiddish theater and Broadway. Carnovsky, portrays Sixtus Andresen, a town schoolteacher who refuses to yield to the demands of the top Nazi thug in Trollness, Captain Koenig (Dantine). It’s a poignant reminder than individuals do have a choice when faced with tyranny.

 Posted by at 12:51 am
Oct 172014
 

LOREN D. ESTLEMAN – Motor City Blue. Houghton Mifflin, hardcover, 1980. Pinnacle, paperback, 1983. Fawcett Crest, paperback, 1986.

   Say welcome to a new private eye. Amos Walker hails from Detroit, and if nothing else, it insures he has no shortage of clients.

   He’s hired in this one by an ex-gangster named Ben Morningstar to find his missing ward. The only clue is a black-and-white glossy of the type sold under the counter in even “those” kinds of bookstores. He’s also a witness to the kidnapping of an old “friend,” a former company commander back in the days of the Vietnam affair. In broad daylight, on Woodward Avenue. I believe it.

   There’s more. The Black Legion — a northern offshoot of the Klan — may be involved in the death of a militant young black labor leader. It’s quite a case. Nothing wholly original, mind you, and if coincidence bothers you, stay away. All the same, it’s written with a definite sense of style and a contagious feeling for the rhythms of life in the inner city.

   If you’re from out of town, you might even get the feeling that the grand old city of Detroit is nothing but one gigantic slum, ready and ripe for redevelopment. Well, I’ve been there, and do you know — not meaning to malign one of my favorite cities at all — I can tell you this: you’d not really be so very far from wrong.

— Reprinted from The MYSTERY FANcier, Vol. 5, No. 3, May/June 1981.


[UPDATE] 10-17-14.   There are (or will be) 24 novels in Estleman’s Amos Walker series, with #24 being published in December: You Know Who Killed Me. There are also two collections of Amos Walker short stories (with possible overlapping). I’ve read only a third of the novels, a sign of serious neglect on my part.

 Posted by at 11:10 pm
Oct 172014
 
REVIEWED BY DAN STUMPF:         


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.

 Posted by at 12:36 am
Oct 162014
 
Reviewed by JONATHAN LEWIS:         


MASTERSON OF KANSAS. Columbia Pictures, 1954. George Montgomery, Nancy Gates, James Griffith, Jean Wille, Benny Rubin, William Henry, David Bruce, Bruce Cowling. Story and screenplay: Douglas Heyes. Director: William Castle.

   Masterson of Kansas is, in many ways, a much better movie than it deserves to be. Let me explain. This Sam Katzman-produced film has little in the way of beautiful Western scenery, not all that much in the way of character development, and, with the exception of the final ten minutes or so, very little creative or unique cinematography or direction. Even so, I found myself thoroughly enjoying this highly fictionalized Bat Masterson lawman story.

   Directed by William Castle, who is now best known for his schlocky and gimmicky horror films, Masterson of Kansas is economical both with plot and time. It’s a short, fun-filled little film that benefits strongly from its casting of George Montgomery as Bat Masterson and veteran character actor James Griffith as Doc Holliday.

   Although Montgomery is definitely a presence in this film, it’s Griffith who steals the show as Holliday, depicted in this movie as a sickly, vengeful gambler who hates – I mean hates! – Masterson with a passion. Griffith simply shines as the irritable Holliday, a man torn between loving cards and loathing Masterson.

   The plot revolves around Masterson’s attempt to clear the name of a man falsely accused and convicted of murder. He does this primarily to help keep the peace between Kansas settlers and the local Indian tribes, one of which is lead by Yellow Hawk (Jay Silverheels). Bat may not be completely altruistic. Along the way, he seems to develop an interest the convicted man’s lovely daughter (Nancy Gates). Their supposed romance is more of a cliché than anything else.

   Truth be told, the storyline isn’t all that much. But there is enough action to keep the viewer engaged. The sequence in which Masterson, Holliday, and Wyatt Earp (Bruce Cowling) walk down the street together as comrades in arms is beautifully filmed, as is the scene of the hangman’s noose waiting for the falsely accused man.

   Masterson of Kansas is no brooding psychological weapon, nor is it an epic tale. But that doesn’t stop it from being fun. As escapist entertainment, this movie has a lot to recommend it.

 Posted by at 2:49 am
Oct 152014
 

JOYCE HOLMS – Payment Deferred. Headline, UK, hardcover, 1996; paperback, 1997. Bloody Brits Press, US, softcover, 2007.

   The cover bills this as “A Fizz & Buchanan Mystery,” which was intriguing right then and there, because (a) I admit that Joyce Holms was a new name to me, and (b) what’s (who’s) a Fizz? Doing some investigation on my own, it was not difficult to discover that Payment Deferred is the first of [nine] in a series, and why I’d happened to have never heard of the author is that [at the time I read this book] none of them have been published in this country.

   I’ll get back to that particular point later, I think. Of the pair of sleuths working out of Ms. Holms’ books, let’s take Tam Buchanan first, as it’s much simpler that way. The town is Edinburgh, and Tam (male) is a lawyer who donates a morning a week to a free legal clinic, a more-or-less straight-and-narrow sort of fellow. As for “Fizz,” I think I’ll do some quoting from pages 7 and 8:

   Tam arrives late to find “a plump girl of about seventeen” waiting for him.

    “You’re waiting to see me, are you?”

    She had a sweet, dimpled face and an expression of unassailable innocence. “Well,” she said with a hesitant smile, “that rather depends on who you are.”

    The discrepancy between what his eyes saw and what his ears heard was so great that Buchanan was momentarily at a loss. It was like being savaged by a day-old chick, which was clearly impossible, so that he had to assume that she had not intended the put-down but was merely trying to sound sophisticated, or some such rubbish.

    “I do beg your pardon,” he said, with exaggerated politeness, and then regretted it. She was, after all, just a kid, and besides, he should have had the common decency to introduce himself before barking at her. “I’m Tam Buchanan, Legal Advice.”

    She gave him a shy nod and offered a small but surprisingly strong hand. “In that case I am waiting to see you. I’m your new assistant. The name’s Fitzpatrick.”

   And so from here the relationship begins, full of sparks and brief bursts of annoyance and vexation (on both sides, but mostly Tam’s). Here’s another long quote from much toward the end of the book (page 291):

    Bloody Fizz!

    Buchanan was equally disgusted at himself for (a) ever letting her into his life, and (b) being markedly less than enthusiastic to be rid of her.

    She was a pain in the neck. Let’s face it, she was horrendous. She was an inveterate liar, a manipulator, selfish, opinionated, miserly, and didn’t give a hoot in hell about anyone but herself. Her philosophy, as propounded by herself, was: everything I have is yours and everything you have is mine. Which was fair enough till you remembered that she didn’t have anything you’d want.

    On the other hand, when she was in a good mood – which, okay, was almost always – she was quite nice to be around. She was different. She made you see things in ways you hadn’t seen them before. Also, she had a strange kind of innocence about her, even though you couldn’t trust her with the gold fillings in Grandma’s teeth. But she was honest. That was the funny thing. Way down deep, where it counted, she was as honest a person as he’d ever met.

    However, be that as it may, he was rid of her now, and he wasn’t about to change that, regrets or no regrets. Common sense dictated that he learn his lesson and steer clear of her from now on.

   Obviously the man is hooked on her. And, no, all first impressions aside, she’s not seventeen, either. More like twenty-six. She’s starting law school in the fall, and working for Tam is to get her foot in the door, and she has no intentions of being a mere secretary. She begins assisting on Tam’s next case almost before he knows there is one.

   Which consists of trying to clear the name of an old (and rather dull) friend of Tam’s, Murray Kingston, who has just been released from prison after being convicted of molesting his young daughter.

   Who had anything to gain from the false conviction – who could have wanted Murray out of the way for any reason – and who could have faked all of the evidence that put him into prison for three years?

   Well, yawn. This is not the most gripping of tales – there’s a heaping abundance of legwork and around page 120 the book gets really talky. Even though (of course) there’s eventually a murder to solve, the real fun is watching the free-spirited Fizz walk loops around the laid-back Buchanan. For the edgiest of relationships since Maddy and David — back before they jumped the shark and “did it” – this is the book you’ll want to read next.

JOYCE HOLMS – Foreign Body. Headline, UK, hardcover, 1997; paperback, 1997. Bloody BRits Press, US, softcover, 2008.

   Authors, on occasion and for various reasons, go in their own direction, and that is not always where the reader is going, or wants to, and he or she (the reader) is left leaning the wrong way, and sometimes in the most awkward of positions.

   Which is to say, strangely enough, in this the second adventure of Fizz and Buchanan, the edge is gone. Vanished. Only the slightest sense of sexual tension between the two mystery solvers remains, showing itself only now and then, and mostly then.

   There’s also a sizable gap in time between the previous book and this one. Fizz, having gotten fired from Tam’s legal clinic, has somehow attached herself to his legal firm itself – and there’s got to be a story there that’s (apparently) never going to be told.

   What we do get, as a rather inadequate substitute – I’m being Uncle Grumpy here – is a intimate look into Fizz’s background – the small Scottish village where she grew up, orphaned at an early age, and raised her elderly grandfather.

   Persuading Tam to recuperate from an inconvenient gall bladder operation in Perthshire, around Am Bealach where Fizz’s grampa lives, Fizz also has an ulterior motive – persuading Tam to also take an interest in the strange disappearance of Old Bessie, an elderly villager Fizz was fond of. In the meantime, another mystery is encountered – that of a strangely behaving camper with a tent full of weird objects including a blonde wig and a mannequin’s hand.

   Can the two cases be connected? Have you not read enough crime fiction to know the answer without asking? You realize of course that the twist might be that they are not – and I’ll never tell.

   Once the reader (that’s me) rights himself (or herself, if it’s you, and the pronoun is appropriate) this pair of semi-dueling detectives does do themselves a fair amount of justice on the pair of mysteries with which they’re confronted.

   Once again the book plods a little in the middle, but the pieces of the puzzle are painstakingly shaped and given time to develop – perhaps a little too painstakingly – but do stay with them. What better reading experience can there be when all sorts of mysterious occurrences are explained and eventually slide into place?

— May 2004

       The Fizz and Buchanan series –

1. Payment Deferred (1996)
2. Foreign Body (1997)
3. Bad Vibes (1998)

4. Thin Ice (1999)
5. Mr Big (2000)
6. Bitter End (2001)

7. Hot Potato (2003)
8. Hidden Depths (2004)
9. Missing Link (2006)

 Posted by at 9:26 pm
Oct 152014
 

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.

 Posted by at 2:32 am
Oct 142014
 
A 1001 MIDNIGHTS Review
by Ellen Nehr


MARGOT ARNOLD – Exit Actors, Dying. Playboy Press, paperback original, 1979. W. W. Norton / Countryman Press, softcover, 1988.

   This paperback original is the first of the adventures of Penelope Spring, American anthropologist, and Toby Glendower, Welsh archaeologist. We meet the pair in Turkey on sabbatical from Oxford. The action begins when Penny is seated in an amphitheater and sees a body lying on the grassy stage below. By the time she returns with the police, however, the body has disappeared.

   Next, a member of a film crew staying at the same hotel as the academicians turns up missing. Toby finds the man`s purloined body, and he and Penny decide to investigate. (Toby has a less-than-altruistic reason: He needs to be back in England in ten days, but the police won’t let him leave until the murder is solved.)

   Using talents developed over the years in their academic specialties, the two middle-aged professors become involved with the personnel of the motion-picture crew and their dependents, as well as study the Turkish countryside, to uncover the criminal and his. motives. This is a nice portrayal of two endearing characters and their warm, nonsexual relationship.

   Among Arnold’s other paperback originals are The Cape Cod Caper (1980), Zadok’s Treasure (1980), and Lament for a Lady Laird (1982). These allow the reader to explore the cranberry bogs of Massachusetts, an archaeological dig in Israel, and a Scottish estate.

         ———
   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 Penny Spring annd Sir Toby Glendower series –

1. Exit Actors, Dying (1979)

2. Zadok’s Treasure (1980)
3. The Cape Cod Caper (1982)
4. Death of a Voodoo Doll (1982)
5. Death on the Dragon’s Tongue (1982)
6. Lament for a Lady Laird (1982)

7. The Menehune Murders (1989)
8. Toby’s Folly (1990)
9. The Catacomb Conspiracy (1992)

10. The Cape Cod Conundrum (1992)
11. Dirge for a Dorset Druid (1994)
12. The Midas Murders (1995)

 Posted by at 5:33 pm
Oct 132014
 

DASHIELL HAMMETT – The Maltese Falcon. Alfred A. Knopf, hardcover, 1930. Originally published in Black Mask magazine as a five part serial from September 1929 through January 1930. Reprinted many times, in both hardcover and paperback. Film: Warner Bros., 1931; also released as Dangerous Female (Ricardo Cortez). Also: Warner Bros., 1936, as Satan Met a Lady (Warren William as Ted Shane). Also: Warner Bros., 1941 (Humphrey Bogart).

   I don’t suppose I have to convince you to read this book, do I? If you haven’t read it yet, I don’t suppose you will. Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe you’ve never gotten around to it. It would be easy to do. But remember, nobody lives forever. You’ve only got one life to live, and that’s all you’ve got.

COMMENTS:

I. The part of Sam Spade was made for Humphrey Bogart.
2. John Huston was wise to write the part of Rhea Gutman out of the screenplay.
3. Spade’s mind always seems to be several jumps ahead of the story, but Barzun and Taylor call him “repeatedly stupid.” Why?
4. Likeable, I’m not so sure he is.

— Reprinted from The MYSTERY FANcier, Vol. 5, No. 3, May/June 1981.


 Posted by at 3:18 am
Oct 122014
 
Reviewed by JONATHAN LEWIS:         


JUKE GIRL. Warner Brothers, 1942. Ann Sheridan, Ronald Reagan, Richard Whorf, George Tobias, Gene Lockhart, Alan Hale, Betty Brewer, Howard Da Silva, Faye Emerson, Willie Best. Sreenplay by A. I. Bezzerides, based on a story by Theodore Pratt. Director: Curtis Bernhardt.

   Although it may not have the most compelling plot or the best action sequences, the Warner Brothers melodrama Juke Girl benefits strongly from Ann Sheridan in a starring role. She portrays a tough, streets smart juke joint dance girl in a bustling Florida farming and packing plant town. Her commitment to the smoke filled music hall life is tested when she encounters Steve Talbot (Ronald Reagan), a charming itinerant farmhand with a strong commitment to the plight of the common man.

   The plot, which occasionally seems to deviate sharply from where one expects it to be heading, follows the story of two friends, Steve Talbot (Reagan) and Danny Frazier (Richard Whorf) as they arrive in Cat Tail, Florida looking for work. They soon come to learn that the small town is all but run by packing magnate Henry Madden (Gene Lockhart) and his strong man, Cully (Henry Da Silva).

   Soon after arriving in town, Steve falls for Lola Mears (Ann Sheridan’s character) who is working at the town’s smoke filled juke joint. But he doesn’t fall as hard for the tyrannical Madden. In fact, he decides he’d rather work for small time tomato farmer Nick Garcos the Greek (George Tobias) than the packing plant owner.

   This strains his relationship with Danny (Whorf) who wants to work for Madden. Along for the ride and trying to keep the peace is character actor Alan Hale, who portrays Yippee, one of the locals with a strong conscience.

   For a time, things go okay for Steve and Lola. They help Nick ship tomatoes to market in Atlanta, and there’s even talk of their settling down together. But Lola abruptly skips out on Steve. She still doesn’t think of herself as the settling down type. Things then get even worse for poor Steve when there’s a warehouse murder, which the townsfolk blame on him.

   The movie abruptly veers from a melodrama to something of a crime film. But even so the crime aspect remains a mere sideshow to the story about the relationship between Steve and Lola, two rural working class lovebirds trying to make their way in a rough and tumble world.

   That said, aside from championing honest work, the film really isn’t very political. There’s no heavy-handed message here. Reagan’s character isn’t as much a labor leader as he is a guy originally from the wheat fields of Kansas who wants hardworking farmers to get a fair deal.

   Juke Girl isn’t the type of film that will likely stick with you for days and weeks after you’ve watched it. But it is nevertheless an enjoyable film, far less gritty than the films noir of the late 1940s, but one that hints strongly at a world where the greedy and the unscrupulous would gladly prey on the weak.

 Posted by at 6:13 pm