Aug 152014

RICHARD STARK – The Jugger. Pocket 50149, paperback original, 1965. Reprinted several times, mostly in softcover.

   A few years ago I re-read one of Richard (Donald E. Westlake) Stark’s old “Parker” novels in the standard “caper” vein, Green Eagle Score, so I recently thought I’d try something a bit different, and selected The Jugger, wondering, as I did, whether Stark’s writing would seem as fine now as it did to the High-School kid I was thirty years ago. My doubts were answered in the first two paragraphs:

   When the knock came at the door, Parker was just turning to the obituary page. He put the paper down and looked around the room and everything was clean and ordinary. He walked over and opened the door.

   The little guy standing there was dressed like he was kidding around.

   Right there. Right in your face, but gently, hints of death, something to conceal, and a trace of tough humor. Makes me wish I could write like that.

   The Jugger departs from the usual format of the series to center on Parker’s response when an old associate writes to ask him for help. It develops that the old-timer (the “jugger” of the title, i. e., someone who has done time in “the jug”) has been hounded to death by a venal cop looking for loot stashed away from previous capers. When Parker shows up just days after the jugger’s death, the cop is convinced he must have an inside track on Where’s The Money.

   I remembered this had a fairly perfunctory murder-mystery angle, but I forgot how abruptly Parker wraps it up. I also recalled a pleasantly tricky bit of business toward the end, as Parker makes sure the cop won’t double-cross him, and one other thing: When Parker responds to the jugger’s plea, he is not necessarily going to help him — he’s going to see if the old-timer has gone soft enough to sell out his friends and hence need to be killed.

 Posted by at 4:34 am
Aug 142014
Reviewed by JONATHAN LEWIS:         

THE GIANT CLAW. Columbia Pictures, 1957. Jeff Morrow, Mara Corday, Morris Ankrum, Louis Merrill, Edgar Barrier, Robert Shayne. Director: Fred F. Sears.

   It’s not everyday that a hideously looking giant bird from outer space soars through American airspace. Even less frequent, I would guess, would that bird have some form of protective anti-matter barrier allowing it to escape detection by radar.

   But that’s the exactly the case in the Sam Katzman-produced, The Giant Claw, a schlocky creature feature that manages to be silly, enjoyable, predictable, and just a little bit subversive.

   Directed by Fred F. Sears, the story follows Mitch MacAfee (Jeff Morrow) and his mathematician girl friend, Sally Caldwell (Mara Corday), as they alternatively butt heads and team up with the U.S. military in an effort to destroy an extraterrestrial flying bird creature that threatens humanity. It’s obviously not a serious movie, but the two lead actors, to their credit, take their parts seriously enough to make it work.

   As far as the creature, it’s indeed a strange looking thing, with bulging eyes and yes, a giant claw. Plus, it’s got an unusual hairstyle that looks more East Village in the 1980s than monster movie in the 1950s.

The bird’s tenacious, though. It’s immune to both conventional and atomic weapons and has little to no patience for rebellious teenagers. And it may have even seen King Kong, given its decision to perch on top of the Empire State Building at one point during the film.

   If you think about it a bit, you come to realize that the film takes a slightly subversive approach to the military brass, which comes across as all too eager to initially disbelieve reports of the bird creature’s existence, then make its very existence classified once they realize that the reports were indeed true. In addition, they come across more than eager to utilize weapons to destroy it. It’s a theme that certainly not unique to The Giant Claw, but one which is fairly well developed for a late 1950s film.

   I wouldn’t dare call The Giant Claw a great movie. In fact, it’s not really even a good movie in the traditional sense. But it’s got something really good going for it — it’s undeniably great escapism, made to entertain rather than to enlighten.

 Posted by at 2:42 am
Aug 132014
Allen J. Hubin

EDWARD MATHIS – The Burned Woman. Scribner’s, hardcover, 1989. Berkley, paperback, 1990.

   The late Edward Mathis [1927-1988] reportedly left a pile of manuscripts, and, if The Burned Woman is any indication, we have some fine treats in store. Here we travel further down the Dan Roman trail. He’s [a private eye] married to Susie, sixteen years his junior and very successful in TV reporting.

   Those years of age difference, the demands of her job, the crude advances of one of Susie’s celebrity interviewees — these all eat at Dan, and he drives her away. Whereupon, after a meeting with the celebrity, she disappears. Dan is plunged into alcoholic despair, alienating his best friend, “proving” his love for Susie by dallying with a prostitute, flailing randomly about as the weeks pass.

   Could the celebrity be holding Susie somewhere, could Susie’s disappearance be connected with a road accident near the celebrity’s home on the night she disappeared?

   Roman here emerges as a deeply flawed person, but the tale is masterfully plotted and utterly compelling.

— Reprinted from The MYSTERY FANcier,
       Vol. 11, No. 3, Summer 1989.

       The Dan Roman series –

From a High Place (1985)

Dark Streaks and Empty Places (1986)
Natural Prey (1987)
Another Path, Another Dragon (1988)
The Burned Woman (1989)
Out of the Shadows (1990)

September Song (1991)
The Fifth Level (1992)

 Posted by at 10:44 pm
Aug 132014

A key aspect of any good mystery is that the author is able to hide the solution from the reader until the end, while still playing fair. That is, the author will leave a trail of crumbs that make it technically possible to piece things together, given the right mindset – but not enough of a trail to make it easy. Spoons succeeds in this regard. I was following each independent thread, knowing that they would come together at the end, but unable to piece it together. Then Bernie lays out the facts at the end, and it all makes perfect sense.

Click here to read the review


Aug 132014
Reviewed by DAVID VINEYARD:         

THE FUGITIVE. RKO Radio Pictures, 1947. Henry Fonda, Dolores Del Rio, Ward Bond, Pedro Armendariz, J. Carroll Naish, John Qualen, Fortuno Bonanova, Rodolfo Acosta. Screenplay by Dudley Nichols, based on the novel The Power and the Glory by Graham Greene. Directors: John Ford and Emilio Fernandez, the latter uncredited.

   Asked by a journalist to name the top three American film directors of all time, Orson Welles replied honestly: “John Ford, John Ford, and John Ford.”

   Certainly Welles was being clever, but he was also being honest. When it comes to film directors, there is John Ford and then there is everyone else.

   I will be clear. I would reply to this day exactly as Welles did, though I would add the finest film director who has lived to this date.

   So take this project, The Fugitive, the film version of Graham Greene’s stunning novel of faith, guilt, and redemption, The Power and the Glory, only surpassed in his own work by The Burnt Out Case, his finest achievement as a serious novelist. Add to that a screenplay by the brilliant Dudley Nichols, and topped with a cast of Ford’s favorite everyman Henry Fonda, and what you have is …

   A misfire.

   A misfire, because you could not find two men more diametrically opposed in outlook, philosophy, and their shared Catholic faith than John Ford and Graham Greene. Ford’s film adaptation is faithful and direct, often straight from the novel. But where Greene wrote his novel as a deeply conflicted Catholic uneasy with his faith and all too aware of the futility of his heroes victory, John Ford made a movie about the Christ-like sacrifice of a flawed priest and the ultimate triumph of the church through the ascension and symbolic resurrection of his hero.

   It’s the exact same story, save Greene’s novel is one of the closest he came to writing a tragedy, Ford’s is a sentimental and triumphant parable about the redemption of the faithful in Mexico through the sacrifice of a flawed man rising to ascension in the footsteps of Jesus.

   The story is simple. In the 1930‘s parts of Mexico were under the control of a secular anti-Catholic, anti-faith, near police state where there was a bounty on the head of any priest ministering to the people. The Catholic Church responded by sending priests in lay disguise into the country to attend to the religious needs of the faithful from last rites to confession. The hero of Greene’s novel is one of these, a Mexican priest returned to serve his flock.

   Here Ford and Greene hove close to each other. The young priest (Henry Fonda) is what was known then as a ‘whiskey’ priest, one who had failed in his duties, fallen into sin, and in this case even had an affair with a Mexican woman, Dolores del Rio. On the ship entering Mexico with the priest is an American bank robber (Ward Bond) who will play the good thief to the priest’s Jesus, also true to the novel.

   Meanwhile a lieutenant in the Federales, Pedro Armendariz, knows a priest has entered his territory and is determined to find and execute him.

   Greene’s hero, is frightened, uncertain of his mission, tempted by drink and sex, and struggles with his faith in lieu of the pressure on him from all sides to turn back and abandon this suicide mission. Ford’s priest is seeking redemption, is near Christlike in his determination to repent for his sins, and finds peace in his mission and ultimate fate.

   Greene’s novel is never sentimental and only symbolic in its questioning: an allegory of fragile men battling intolerance and evil, but flawed and weak and ultimately all too human. Though Greene’s hero meets the exact same fate in front of a firing squad after being betrayed by metizo J. Carroll Naish, a whining slimy treacherous Judas figure, his death in the novel redeems no one, not even himself.

   Ford’s film, though is full of beautiful Christian imagery borrowed from the great works of religious art from Michelangelo and Leonardo to Rembrandt. Shot in stark black and white on location in Mexico, it is a stunning looking film as you might expect from Ford. Ford’s priest dies as triumphal as the risen Christ with the Lieutenant’s Pontius Pilate unable to wash the innocents blood from his hands. In the novel the Lieutenant at best feels a certain guilt at having killed the priest, and questions his work.

   Nothing demonstrates the difference between film and book as the ending does, though it is almost word for word the same in both. After the whiskey priest dies, a Catholic family silently mourns him and waits for a relative to die without the last rites. There is a knock at the door and a child goes to open it. A man stands in the doorway and begins to announce he is a priest, but before he can speak the child silences him with a finger to his lip, and he enters the darkened home.

   In Greene’s version we are meant to recognize the futility of the priest’s sacrifice. However noble it was, the Church would always send another man because the Church transcended individual sacrifice. In a sense Greene’s hero has saved no one’s soul but his own and maybe the thief’s. He accomplished little, died for his efforts, but was only a cog in the machinery of faith. His sacrifice was an illusion that has meant nothing to anyone but himself and will be forgotten by everyone but a handful of people, lost even as his body lies in unconsecrated ground no last rites read over it to ease his soul heavenward.

   The book is not tragic because he does overcome his flaws, but just how necessary that sacrifice was is questioned. It is the work of a deeply faithful and conflicted Catholic, himself held captive by guilt and self recognition. The novel is a deep and troubling question about the necessity of sacrifice and the blindness of faith.

   That same scene in the Ford film is triumph, the rising of Christ Himself, reborn in this new anonymous priest. The Church has defeated the forces repressing it. The priest has defeated his enemy’s in death and his own inner demons, their power is broken, the faithful have triumphed, the music rises, the priest silhouetted in the door way is Christ, the child mankind saved by his Grace.

   Ford’s film is sentimental, worshipful, a paean to the power and glory of the Church, and yet the title of the novel, The Power and the Glory, is ironic and the Church would have triumphed and continued with or without the priest’s sacrifice. The film is heavy handed, it’s message delivered with a sledge hammer of symbolic images and barely concealed metaphors. A revival would be less obvious.

   The novel leaves questions unanswered, the ending is ironic and a bit bitter, the priest’s sacrifice of little matter however Christ-like its nature. Greene is uncertain if it is necessary or pointless for a good man to die. Good Catholic that he was, Greene is clearly wishing he could change the outcome and let the priest find happiness with the woman. The author’s conflict, not the parable. make this a great book.

   The Fugitive is not a bad film. Like most Ford films, it is gorgeous to look at, literate, and the acting by Fonda, del Rio, Bond, Armedariz, and Naish well above average. It would likely be a more respected film if it had just had the courage to question faith and sacrifice as Greene’s novel did. Instead it is as sentimental about the faith as Going My Way or Boy’s Town.

   The power of the novel is lost in Christian symbolism, the glory of its telling sacrificed to just another heavy handed Hollywood religious parable about as subtle, but not half as much fun, as de Mille.

   Greene famously disliked the film, with some justification, both as the author and as a noted film critic, but then he was never very happy with any of the American films of his work, and expecting him to appreciate one by the sentimental Irish American patriot John Ford was probably too much to ask.

   The Power and the Glory did get a more faithful adaptation in a film made for British television and released theatrically, starring Lawrence Oliver as the whiskey priest and Claire Bloom the woman he loves. This version dares to ask the questions and pose the conundrums Ford’s film shies from. It may be the only time in history the made for television version was better than the theatrically released feature. It is certainly one of the few times anyone made a better film than John Ford using the same source.

 Posted by at 12:20 am
Aug 112014
Reviewed by JONATHAN LEWIS:         

THE LAW AND JAKE WADE. MGM, 1958. Robert Taylor, Richard Widmark, Patricia Owens, Robert Middleton, Henry Silva, De Forest Kelley. Based on a novel by Marvin H. Albert (Gold Medal, 1956). Director: John Sturges.

   The Law and Jake Wade has many of the requisite elements of an above average 1950s Western. Directed by John Sturges, whose Last Train From Gun Hill I reviewed here, the film boasts an impressive cast and an even more impressive natural scenery of the Alabama Hills and the High Sierras. There are some incredibly well shot action sequences to boot.

   Overall, the film has a quite stark and gritty feel to it. This dovetails nicely with the film’s plot about a man seeking a domestic, morally upright life far removed from both his wartime experiences and his criminal past.

   Yet, despite all this, the film nevertheless ends up feeling as something of a letdown. It’s not so much that the plot doesn’t work, as it is that outlaw-turned-lawman Jake Wade, as portrayed by a taciturn Robert Taylor, just isn’t all that a compelling Western protagonist.

   Instead, the film’s evilly grinning villain, played by Robert Widmark, ends up being the movie’s center of gravity. Without him as an antagonist, the viewer might find it very difficult to care about Jake Wade.

   The film begins with Jake Wade (Taylor) breaking Clint Hollister (Widmark) out of jail. He does it out of a perhaps misplaced sense of loyalty to the man, because as it turns out, the two men used to be partners in crime. That is, until Wade accidentally shot and killed a young boy in a bank holdup (or so he believes). Wade’s left the criminal life behind him and has set up shop in a new town with a lovely girl and a job enforcing the law as opposed to breaking it.

   But Hollister and his men aren’t about to let Wade walk out of their lives so readily. There’s the pesky matter of stolen cash that Wade, now a Marshal, allegedly buried, and Hollister wants his share of the loot.

   So he kidnaps Wade and his fiancée, Peggy Carter (Patricia Owens), with the goal of forcing them to take him to where the money is buried. Assisting him in his endeavor is his gang, including the lanky sociopath Rennie (Henry Silva) and the violent but loyal Wexler (Star Trek’s DeForest Kelley in a great role). It’s Widmark’s character that makes the movie increasingly suspenseful.

   The rest of the movie follows this ragtag expedition as they traverse mountain paths, hole up in a ghost town, and do battle with Comanches.

   And, naturally, there’s a final shootout between Jake Wade and Clint Hollister. Wade ends up killing his former partner, allowing him to at least have an opportunity to put his dark past behind him once and for all.

   It’s only too bad that the character of Jake Wade was never developed beyond what is essentially a stereotypical Western anti-hero, a former Confederate soldier and outlaw who wants a fresh start.

 Posted by at 10:43 pm
Aug 112014

JOSEPHINE PULLEIN-THOMPSON – They Died in the Spring. Hammond Hammon & Co., UK, hardcover, 1960. Linford Mystery Library, UK, softcover, 1990. No US edition.

   This is the second of three recorded cases that Chief-Inspector James Flecker of Scotland Yard is known to have worked on. The first was Gin and Murder (1959), the third and final one was Murder Strikes Pink (1963). They Died in the Spring takes place in April, not surprisingly, in a part of England called Bretfordshire, where a retired Colonel has been found shot to death. An accident, it is thought at first – the old gentleman is found fallen in a woods with his shotgun nearby — but gradually it becomes clear that it is a case of murder instead.

   That Colonel Barclay had recently announced his intention to plough over the local cricket field, land which in truth he owned, may have led someone in respond in anger, but the Colonel was the sort of person who seems to have made enemies easily. But what could be the connection between his death and that of a young female German house servant in the neighborhood? The case is too much for the local police force, and Flecker is called in to assist.

   Much of what follows is tedious police work. Lots of questions, lots of answers, not all of which agree which each other, lots of notes taken on the backs of envelopes, lots of conferring with Detective-Sergeant Browning, who is working with Flecker on the case. There is something of a Midsomer Murders feel to the investigation, except that Inspector Barnaby is happily married, while Flecker has regrets.

   From pages 122-123:

   He [Fletcher] felt detached and solitary among the pleasure-seeking family parties and fell to reckoning how old his children would be by now if he and Pauline had stayed together ad had them. […] He shook himself and superimposed the gray shadow of police pay and promotion across his mental picture of the blue and white sitting-room. Though he was a useful backroom boy, he was hardly the sort to rise high; he was too impatient of routine, too unconventional. He’d need superintendent’s pay at least to marry the sort of woman with whom he wanted to spend the rest of his life and, by the time he had it, ho would be bald, eccentric and egocentric and have false teeth. He sighed and turned his mind back to the case.

   The case is, one must admit, rather routine, consisting largely of the breaking down of alibis. As an author, Pullein-Thompson seems more adept at describing the local countryside in a fashion that caught my attention more than did the case itself.

   From page 131:

   Ten minutes brought him [Flecker] to the spot in the larch plantation where Colonel Barclay had died, and he stood there for a time, lost in thought. The larches had not yet grown tall enough to shade the track and so, at Flecker’s feet, primroses raised pale, naïve faces and flamboyant dandelions, the extroverts of the spring flowers splashed their exuberant yellow among the grass. It was very quiet; Sunday had stilled the tractors, and Flecker collected the sounds one by one. Somewhere away on the hill a dog barked, there was the distant angry moo of a protesting cow, nearer two birds sang, and in the yellow flowers of a self-sown sallow beside the tracks, the bees droned ceaselessly. Man oughtn‘t to do his dirty work in such places, thought Flecker, he should murder beside the railway line or behind the gasworks, but then he reminded himself that a week ago the woods had not looked like this and that track had been a cold grim place.

   I confess that I didn’t follow the investigation all that closely, but I definitely enjoyed the book, especially the ending, which had nothing to do with nabbing the killer, but which took me by surprise. I had to look back and check to see, but yes, the clues were all there.

R.I.P. JOSEPHINE PULLEIN-THOMPSON (1924-2014). Besides the three Flecker mysteries, Josephine Pullein-Thompson was far better known in England for her pony books written primary for girls. According to her online obituary in The Guardian on 22 June 2014, “In the equestrian novels that she, her mother Joanna Cannan and her younger twin sisters Diana and Christine, wrote – nearly 200 between them – riding horses was also the way that girls could show that they were just as good as boys, if not better. Their heroines relished mucking out stables and the freedom of galloping away across the countryside, and the pluckiest were able to turn bedraggled nags into rosette-winning champions, later returning home to celebrate with a truly ‘supersonic tea’.”

   Joanna Cannan, by the way, was also a mystery writer, with some thirteen works of crime and detective fiction included in Hubin.

 Posted by at 12:19 pm
Aug 112014

BAD FOR EACH OTHER. Columbia Pictures, 1953. Charlton Heston, Lizabeth Scott, Dianne Foster, Mildred Dunnock, Arthur Franz, Ray Collins, Marjorie Rambeau, Lester Matthews, Rhys Williams. Screenplay: Irving Wallace & Horace McCoy. Director: Irving Rapper.

   This movie is available on DVD in a set of four films billed as Bad Girls of Film Noir, Volume 1. While I’ll name them below, I won’t comment at length on the other three, but to be blunt about it, Bad for Each Other is the kind of film that gives noir a bad name.

   Don’t blame the movie. It is what it is, a black-and-white doctor drama that when it was made had no intention of being related to any of the host of crime films, spy dramas, gangster movies, mystery thrillers, and even the occasional historical mini-epic from the late 40 and 50s that are all lumped together in the guise of being noir. Some are. Most aren’t. “Noir” is now often little more than a marketing device.

   There isn’t even a crime in this one, only the moral dilemma some members of the medical profession (Dr. Tom Owen, for example, as portrayed by Charlton Heston) must face: be idealist and work for pennies on the dollar that society doctors can make, catering to rich women with minor aches and pains, or be one of the latter and rake in the big bucks.

   Lip service is paid to the idea that Dr. Owen needs the money to be able to contend for the hand of one of the idle rich, Helen Curtis (cool husky-voiced Lizabeth Scott), twice divorced and the daughter of the wealthy owner of the mine back in Owen’s hometown of Coalville, PA, but the good doctor seems all too willing to be seduced by money instead and the easy way to get it. That Mrs. Curtis is only a trophy to be gained along the way seems all too clear, even at the sacrifice of his own reputation. (He has to cover anonymously for the head of his practice when the latter confesses that he can no longer do surgical procedures.)

   There are a couple of interesting plot lines that go nowhere. The story that remains is as limp as yesterday’s lettuce. Well-known hardboiled author Horace McCoy ought to have been ashamed of himself for putting his name on this one.

   Other films in this set are The Killer That Stalked New York (1950), Two of a Kind (1951 and reviewed here) and The Glass Wall) (1953). Two of a Kind starts out in fine fashion, but in my opinion fades badly. Comments on any of these most welcome.

 Posted by at 12:02 am
Aug 102014
by Marv Lachman

CHRISTIANNA BRAND – Green for Danger. Lane, UK, hardcover, 1945. Dodd Mead, US, hardcover, 1944. Reprinted many times in both hardcover and soft, including Carroll & Graf, US, 1990.

   Christiana Brand’s Green for Danger has been reprinted more than most mysteries, such is its reputation. The latter has undoubtedly been enhanced by the popular 1947 British film version with Alistair Sim, Leo Gena, and Trevor Howard. Now, Carroll & Graf has reprinted it in trade paperback at $7.95, and if this attractive edition garners some new readers for the book, it will have served its purpose.

   It is an ingeniously plotted tale of murder at a British hospital during an air raid, but it is equally a splendid picture of human beings who are exhausted and operating at the end of their endurance. This is a book which can speak very nicely for itself, but this version has two bonuses in the form of a fine preface by H. R F. Keating and an equally good introduction by Otto Penzler which put the book and its author’s career into perspective.

— Reprinted from The MYSTERY FANcier, Vol. 11, No. 3, Summer 1989.

 Posted by at 11:49 pm