by Francis M. Nevins
PHILIP ATLEE – The Green Wound. Gold Medal k1321, paperback original, 1963. Later reprinted as The Green Wound Contract, Gold Medal, paperback, 1967.
Joseph Liam Gall’s first appearance in print was as a free-lance soldier of fortune embroiled in a Burmese civil war in Pagoda (1951), a hardcover adventure novel published under James Atlee Phillips’s full name. A dozen years later, writing as Philip Atlee, the author revived Gall, made him a disillusioned contract killer for the CIA, and put him through more than twenty paperback spy thrillers, of which the first and best was The Green Wound.
The crime writer with whom Phillips seems to have the most in common is Raymond Chandler. Both men use a cinematically vivid first-person style (although Phillips avoids the profusions of metaphor and simile that make Chandler so easy to parody) and eschew careful plotting in favor of strong individual scenes and memorable moments.
Almost all the Joe Gall novels suffer from near-chaotic structure, but Phillips’s finest scenes are so fresh and alive that, as Chandler said of Dashiell Hammett’s, they seem never to have been written before.
Phillips’s treatment of his main character is a brilliant study in schizophrenia. On one level Gall is the stoic code hero of the Hemingway tradition, and on another he stems from Ian Fleming’s James Bond, the professional killer for his government, the larger-than-life secret agent forever besting villains of the mythological-monster sort.
In the conventional patriotic thriller of this type, we are never allowed to doubt that whatever our side does is right because we are by definition the good guys. Phillips at his best subverts this nonsense and approaches the insight of John Le Carre that perhaps at bottom We and They are mirror images of each other.
Witness,for instance, the story line of The Green Wound. Gall is paid a huge sum by his former bosses at the CIA to come out of idyllic semi-retirement in an Ozark castle, infiltrate a quiet Texas community, and frustrate a plot to ruin the politically connected millionaire who runs the city. From his vantage point as manager of the local country club, Gall dispassionately observes the viciousness of the ruling class and the institutionalized racism that keeps the blacks in a shantytown on the wrong side of the railroad tracks.
In due course Gall learns that the blacks have secretly organized, with the help of federal civil-rights enforcers, to register to vote at the last possible minute and then oust the white politicians at the polls. On Election Day a bloody race war erupts, leaving the city in flames. Later Gall pursues the instigator of the revolt, a horribly disfigured black veteran who was used by army doctors as an experimental animal and is aching for revenge on the entire power structure.
The action swings from Mexico to Texas to New Orleans to the Caribbean and back again, but Phillips never resolves the tension between Gall the good soldier and Gall the man who knows he’s on the wrong side. This tension, rather than its considerable virtues as an action thriller, is what makes The Green Wound one of the finest spy novels ever written by an American.
In most of the later Galls, Phillips downplays or eliminates the structural schizophrenia, and the lesser exploits overstress local color and exotic settings — Sweden, Tahiti, Thailand, Haiti, British Columbia, Korea, and elsewhere — at the expense of story and action. But even the weaker Phillips novels are usually redeemed by several powerful individual scenes that stick in the memory long after the book as a whole is forgotten.
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 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.
MR. NICE GUY. A Raymond Chow/Golden Harvest Production, Hong Kong, 1997; first released as Yat goh ho yan. New Line Cinema, US, 1998 (dubbed). Jackie Chan, Richard Norton, Miki Lee, Karen McLymont, Gabrielle Fitzpatrick. Director: Sammo Kam-Bo Hung.
I don’t think it’s going out on a limb for me to state that one usually doesn’t watch Jackie Chan movies for the intricate plots and captivating dialogue. No. One watches them for their action sequences, superbly timed humor, and their extraordinarily well-choreographed martial arts moments.
It’s also very difficult not to like Jackie Chan as both a performer and as a person. He seems, well, like a nice guy.
In Mr. Nice Guy, Jackie trades on that persona and portrays a fictionalized version of himself as a Melbourne-based television cooking show host. But it doesn’t take too long into the film to realize that he’s agile both with the kitchen utensils and with his fists.
The story follows Jackie’s chivalrous attempts to protect both a television newswoman and his girlfriend from a drug cartel and a street gang. In a somewhat ludicrous plot device, Jackie accidentally ends up with a videocassette that depicts a drug deal gone awry between the two aforementioned criminal elements. The tape falls into the hands of the grandchildren of his co-host. Oh, and guess what? His co-host’s son just happens to be a cop.
You can see where this is heading.
But as I said at the outset, one doesn’t watch movies like this for the plot.
It’s all about the action, the fights, the stunts, and the sheer excitement of watching Jackie Chan punch, kick, and swing his way around Melbourne’s city streets, construction sites, and apartment blocks. It’s a great, thrilling ride from beginning to end. There are some particularly amazing stunt sequences, including a lengthy chase on an apartment building top and another in a half-constructed building.
Mr. Nice Guy isn’t a movie you need to think a lot about. It’s just a lot of fun. Look for the cameo of the Hong Kong New Wave director, Sammo Hung, as a bicycle courier. It’s a great little scene in a great little action film.
William F. Deeck
WILLIAM DAVID SPENCER – Mysterium and Mystery: The Clerical Crime Novel. UMI Research Press, hardcover, 1989, 344 pp., $49.95. Southern Illinois Press, softcover, 1992.
Perhaps I should start with a disclaimer: my theology, such as it is — or, sadly more accurately, was — was gained from nuns at a parochial school. Now that I can look back on it with detachment, they were dear ladies but woefully inadequate in their understanding of religion. Any questions not covered in the catechism were met with “Never mind” or disappointed looks or mitigated horror.
Thus, my understanding of Spencer’s chapter on “Modus Operandi: Mysterium into Mystery” is at best suspect, at worst completely befuddled. But I didn’t get the book so that I could learn theology; I got it to read about clerical detectives and their theology.
Spencer says — and I have no disagreement with him — that the clerical crime novel may be divided into three classifications. The most general, he says, is any tale that involves the clergy and crime. This type of novel involves “saintly side-kicks” — “as in Jack Webb’s or Thurmin [sic] Warriner’s tales or in a lesser sense in Christopher Leach’s Blood Games or Dorothy Salisbury Davis’s Where the Dark Streets Go.”
The second division is the novel in which a crime is committed by a cleric. Spencer provides several examples, though not the most unusual one, which I can’t name since to do so would be to give away whodunit.
Finally, and the focus of this book, are the mysteries solved by the cleric. Part One of Spencer’s treatise is “Rabbis and Robbers,” dealing with two tales from the Apocrypha and with the novels of Harry Kemelman. Although Spencer lists Joseph Telushkin in his “Graph of the Clerical Crime Novel in English,” Rabbi David Winter is not dealt with in this study.
Part Two is “Priests and Psychopaths,” the Roman Catholic clergy, both ordained and nonordained — in the latter case the various nuns and brothers.
Part Three is “Ministers and Murders” — yes, as you may have gathered, Spencer does have a thing for alliteration, even when it can be somewhat misleading- representing the various Protestant clergy.
How well does Spencer sum up the clergy characters and their theology? Quite well, I believe, in those cases in which I have read at least one of the books by an author. The only authors I haven’t read are Barbara Ninde Byfield, whom ! hope to get around to shortly, and James L. Johnson, who wrote the Code Name Sebastian Series, a series, after reading Spencer’s descriptions of the novels,!feel I can skip without any loss. (Oh, all right, I merely started The Name of the Rose. Some people, I am informed, have read, enjoyed, and understood it, though I am dubious whether any one person did all three.)
Keep in mind, of course, that Spencer is not rating the clergy characters as detectives or the novels as detective tales; he is dealing with the books as to how they reflect the characters’ theology or, in one case, the near absence of it.
Errors? If you get as upset as I do over the misuse of “flaunt” for “flout,” you’d join me in considering that a mistake. Otherwise, except for his curious notion that Eco’s William of Baskerville chewed tobacco in fourteenth-century Europe, Spencer is, as far as I could tell, quite accurate in depicting plot and character.
Oversights? The only clergy detective not dealt with that I know of is the Reverend Peter Eversleigh, sometimes called the Padre, featured in several of Richard Goyne’s novels. This Protestant clergyman detective seems to have been overlooked by all who have published lists of religious sleuths. Since in the one novel I have read in which the Padre appears there is nothing about theology, perhaps no great loss has been suffered from lack of knowledge about him. The Lipstick Clue (Paul, 1954) is, however, a rather decent novel of detection.
Is Mysterium and Mysteries a fair value at $49.95? I paid that price, and I feel it was worth it. After all, there is a fair amount of information about clerical detectives as detectives but very little about their theology. Dedicated fans of the Divine Mystery, or Holy Terror, or the clerical crime novel, or whatever you want to call it, probably should own this study. Others should suggest that their public library acquire it.
WOMAN WANTED. MGM, 1935. Maureen O’Sullivan, Joel McCrea, Lewis Stone, Louis Calhern, Adrienne Ames, Edgar Kennedy, Robert Grieg Screenplay Leonard Fields, David Silverstein. Story by Wilson Collinson. Director: George B. Seitz.
This one is a rapid paced comedy mystery with a much more attractive and accomplished cast than you might expect from this sort of light fare. It’s a good example of bright entertainment from the era enhanced by talent that far exceeds the material.
Ann Grey (Maureen O’Sullivan) is a convicted criminal who finds herself freed when she escapes an accident in a car. As luck, and Hollywood screenplays, would have it the first person she runs into is Perry Mason-like fast-thinking and slick-defense attorney Tony Baxter (Joel McCrea).
This being a movie, McCrea almost immediately decides Ann is innocent, and sets out to prove it with the help of his butler Peedy (Robert Grieg who played butlers as often as Arthur Treacher or Eric Blore), and as you might expect he has more problems than just the police: he also has to keep Ann hidden from his jealous finacee Betty (Adrienne Ames).
Meanwhile the crooks led by Smiley (Louis Calhern), who actually did the murder Ann was convicted of, are waiting for her too, believing she knows where the $250,000 in war bonds the murder was committed for are hidden.
This is Golden Age Hollywood and you don’t need much more than this to turn out a fast paced and entertaining little film. Woman Wanted is full of bright lines, O’Sullivan and McCrea are well matched, her innocence but underlying sensuality and his all American boy charm creating genuine chemistry on screen.
Add to Tony’s other problems, his competitive old friend the District Attorney (Lewis Stone) suspects he has Ann and would like nothing better than to trim Tony’s sails for his habit of sailing blithely on the thin edge of the law.
This one is in almost constant movement, and McCrea’s Tony Baxter actually proves to be as smart and quick on his feet as he is supposed to be. There are fewer really stupid acts by the hero than most film heroes display.
Based on a story by Wilson Collinson (creator of Maisie), this little film delivers its full measure of entertainment painlessly and with a great deal of charm. McCrea and O’Sullivan are good as I said, Grieg has the priceless unshaken look of all great film butlers and valets (it seems every man in the thirties had his own butler or valet — you have to wonder why there was a depression and job shortage), and the scenes with Stone and McCrea have some of the feel of the best of Hamilton Burger and Perry Mason’s maneuvering.
If you like bright comedy mysteries from this era, enjoy seeing stars like McCrea and O’Sullivan — attractive and young early in their career — or just want to kill an hour or so pleasantly this is the one for you.
This wouldn’t make anyone’s list of the ten best comedy mysteries of the period, but it would certainly make the list of those that were entertaining and accomplished every goal set for the form.
This woman and this movie will be wanted by any lover of the comedy mystery form.
MALAYA. MGM, 1949. Spencer Tracy, James Stewart, Valentina Cortesa, Sydney Greenstreet, John Hodiak, Lionel Barrymore, Gilbert Roland, Roland Winters. Director: Richard Thorpe.
Sometimes even a great cast can’t save a film bogged down with a lackluster storyline and undistinguished direction. That’s definitely the case with Malaya, an overall disappointing war movie about American smugglers working to get rubber out of Malaysia and into the hands of the Allied war effort.
If you think I’m being too harsh, consider the all-star cast that’s bogged down by a mediocre script: Spencer Tracy, James Stewart, Sydney Greenstreet, and Lionel Barrymore. Plus there are some great character actors in this one. John Hodiak as a federal agent, DeForest Kelley as a U.S. Navy officer, Gilbert Roland as a smuggler, and Roland Winters as a German plantation owner living in Malaysia.
And truth be told, Greenstreet really does steal the show in this one, making it worth watching for admirers of his work. In his final screen role, he portrays a character named The Dutchman, a scheming, world-weary saloon owner in Imperial Japanese-occupied Malaysia. There’s something both sad and charming about his character, a tired, obese man at war with his pet bird and, it would seem, with a life that has seemingly lost its purpose.
But it’s not enough to make Malaya anything other than a run-of-the-mill late 1940s wartime film, one that just feels like a tired effort designed to be both patriotic and informative about a lesser-known chapter in the Second World War.
James Stewart, of course, would soon get a new lease on celluloid life as a Western actor in Broken Arrow and in his collaborative efforts with Anthony Mann. Maybe that’s but one reason why this 1949 war melodrama isn’t very well known. But then again, there’s just no outstanding reason why it should be.
CHARLES L. CLIFFORD – While the Bells Rang. Doubleday Crime Club, hardcover, 1941. [Also published in novella form in The American Magazine, March 1941.]
Except for one borderline item, according to Hubin, this book constitutes the extent of Clifford’s contribution to novel-length crime fiction. (According to the dust jacket, he was well known for his short stories, but if any of them were detective stories, I’m embarrassed to say I don’t know.)
When the story begins, a great deal has already happened. A well-known columnist has been murdered on a polo-player’s ranch, and an army captain from the base adjoining has already been tried and convicted. Convinced of his innocence, however, his fiancee and his closest army buddy decide to become partners and do a little bit of undercover detective work to prove it.
The delivery is fast and slangy — the combined effect, I imagine, of the army post background plus the presence of the fast-paced horsey set next door — while at times a little too much is left unsaid, making the whole affair seem to be taking place in another time and another place altogether. Through the faulty focus of this self-contained time-machine, it’s no great wonder the pieces of the puzzle seem continually blurred and fractionally out of place.
And yet, before it was all over, the characters had started to show definite signs of life, and some of their romantic entanglements had begun to seem important to me as well as to them.
If Clifford had been able to give his amateur sleuths a little more direction, if he had gathered his own material a little more tightly together, if he’d forced the plot to ramble a little less, I’m convinced he’d have had a winner.
That’s a lot of “ifs,” I grant you. I was left in a good mood when it was over, though, and I really think he came closer than I thought for a while he was going to.
Rating: B minus.
[UPDATE] 11-10-14. I don’t remember this one at all, not even with the review itself to jog my memory. I have it to admit it. It’s time to start over.
One other thing. In the comments that followed David Vineyard’s recent review of a novel by Charles Williams, there was a short discussion of pairs of authors with the same name. Here’s another one for you. The real name of Robert Ames, who wrote three paperback originals for Gold Medal in the 50s, was Charles Clifford. You could look it up.
RICHARD GLENDINNING – Terror in the Sun. Gold Medal #237, paperback original, 1952.
From the back cover:
She swept through that swamp town like original sin.
Johnny Clayton looked at her and kissed his life good-by.
Because of her, he suffered jail for a crime he didn’t commit.
Because of her, he risked his life in a battle with incredible evil.
And she cursed him for it.
Well, I’ve had relationships like that, so I picked up Richard Glendenning’s Terror in the Sun with some interest and anticipation. And found it enjoyably routine. All the Gold Medal staples are here: working-class hero, willing women, corrupt cops, noble Indians, tough feds and loathsome furinners.
They all strut and fret their appointed hour on the page, full of spit and vinegar, signifying a pleasant and forgettable read.
Carson City is a good, albeit not great, Western starring Randolph Scott. Directed by Andre de Toth, whose The Stranger Wore a Gun I reviewed here, the film benefits from a solid, if standard, plot and the presence of a sinister-looking Raymond Massey as the main villain.
Unfortunately, there just isn’t all that much in the way of outstanding cinematography or in-depth character development. That, and the fact that at times it feels as if Scott is merely going through the motions, makes Carson City less entertaining than it might have been.
That said, the plot is easy enough to follow. Scott portrays Jeff Kincaid, an adventurer and an engineer who is tasked with building a railroad between Carson City and Virginia City, both in Nevada. Unfortunately, the good townsfolk of Carson City are divided on the wisdom of constructing a rail line through their small city. Local newspaper owner, Zeke Mitchell (Don Beddoe) is strongly opposed. His daughter, Susan (Lucille Norman) seems more ambivalent. Susan also figures in some family drama: Kincaid’s half-brother, Alan (Richard Webb), has romantic feelings for her, feelings that aren’t reciprocated.
But as it turns out the real drama in this movie isn’t so much about the railroad. It’s about bandits, particularly a group called the Champagne Bandits, so named for their propensity to serve their victims bubbly. Leading these gourmand outlaws is no other than the character portrayed by Raymond Massey, Jack Davis. It’s really Massey, more than Scott, who makes this film worth watching. Massey, who like Scott served during the First World War (some historical trivia), is quite good in this film. One only wishes that the final showdown between Scott and Massey’s characters wasn’t so brief.
While Carson City isn’t nearly among the best Western movies from the 1950s, it’s not the worst either. It’s just somewhere in the vast middle or maybe just slightly better than average.