Monday, April 23, 2018

“Beirut” is a Movie to See

Starting in Beirut, Lebanon, in 1972, the film opens with Mason Skiles (played by Jon Hamm), an American diplomat, hosting a party at his beautiful home, when terrorists strike. Skiles’s wife is killed in the attack.

The story then jumps forward 10 years, finding Skiles in the U.S., a labor negotiator by day and a booze hound by night. While knocking back drinks at a local watering hole, Skiles is approached by a man he knew during his foreign service days. The man has a proposition, fly to Beirut and give a lecture at a university and earn a tidy sum for not much work. Of course there is more to this proposal. American officials in Lebanon want Skiles to negotiate for the return of an American who was snatched off the streets of Beirut. The kidnapped man was a friend back in the day, but returning to city of his nightmares tears at Skiles.

“Beirut” is a well-made spy thriller with good performances from Hamm, Rosamund Pike as the person assigned to handle him during the job, and the rest of the cast.

The smart, complex script is by Tony Gilroy, and the direction by Brad Anderson.

This film is not going to attract huge audiences of teens and 20-somethings and may not last long in theaters. So try to catch it on the big screen before it disappears.

Friday, April 20, 2018

FFB: Honey in His Mouth by Lester Dent

Prolific author Lester Dent is a writer I have not read nearly enough of, but working to correct that I picked up Honey in His Mouth, his fast paced, unpredictable, crime novel.

Giving away too much of the plot would steal from readers the pleasure of discovering this story for themselves. So, all I will say is this:

A shifty guy named Walter Harsh, who scratches out a barely legal living as a photographer, is approached by a shady man who has a money-making scheme. Harsh is a dead ringer for an important person.

Dent keeps the story moving, filling it with one unexpected turn after another. Walter Harsh hangs in there, twist after twist, focusing on the big money at stake, even though his life is at stake too. Greed keeps winning out. This is a noir novel with fear, criminality and sex on every page.

Lester Dent (1904-1959) who came up through the pulps and created Doc Savage, knew how to keep his main character and his reader hooked and squirming.

Publishers Weekly said Dent wrote the book in 1956, but it was not published until 2009 when Hard Case Crime issued it.

Friday, March 30, 2018

FFB: Black Mask Stories by Frederick Nebel and George Harmon Coxe

This week I dove into my late-winter impulse buy, The Black Lizard Big Book of Black Mask Stories, edited by Otto Penzler. It is 1112-page paperback with 53 stories from that pulp.

To start, I picked two stories featuring newspaper men.

In “Fall Guy,” by George Harmon Coxe, Boston newspaper photographer Flashgun Casey responds to a call for help from a woman being blackmailed. It is not long before Casey gets himself beaten up, knocked out, suspected of murder, and made the fall guy when $10,000 of the woman’s cash is stolen.

Coxe’s style is light and straight forward. There is not a lot of depth or character development here, and no newspaper work, other than two brief references. I would have liked more newsroom chaos, headlines and great photos caught on the fly. But the story was fast paced with plenty of action.

Publications like Black Mask certainly had an impact on the movies in the early sound era. But, reading “Fall Guy,” I wondered if by June 1936, when “Fall Guy” was published, the movies were having their own effect on the pulps. Coxe’s writing had the feeling of a jaunty B-picture from that time.

George Harmon Coxe, (1901 – 1984), wrote yarns featuring Casey through the 1930s and into the 1940s. The character also starred in a radio program. Coxe wrote another series with another newspaper photographer called Kent Murdock.

“Doors in the Dark,” by Frederick Nebel, was published in the February 1933, issue. In it, police Captain Steve MacBride and newspaper reporter, Kennedy (no first name given), solve the murder of a friend of MacBride’s. The man, found dead in a waterfront warehouse, appeared to have committed suicide. But MacBride rejects that idea and digs into what really happened.

Descriptions in the story are a bit clunky, but Nebel’s dialogue is snappy and his story has momentum. Nothing stops MacBride once he takes on a case. And Kennedy is a surprise. He is always drinking but never too drunk to help solve the murder.

Nebel uses some archaic words which give the story a feeling of the times. He calls MacBride’s police car a “phaeton,” an old word for a touring carriage. A woman “flounced” across a room. And twice someone “scaled” an object, as in, “Cohen scaled a slip of paper onto the desk.”

Scale is a word I associate with climbing mountains, weighing objects, or cleaning fish, but I’ve never heard anyone use it as Nebel does. Merriam-Webster’s dictionary provides several definitions, including this one: “to throw (something, such as a thin, flat stone) so that the edge cuts the air or so that it skips on water: skim.”

Frederick Nebel (1903 – 1967), is a writer I know from a book of his collected short stories featuring a detective named Cardigan. His MacBride-Kennedy characters were featured in a series of B-movies in the 1930s with some changes. Newspaper man Kennedy became newspaper woman Torchy Blane.

Monday, March 26, 2018

Chicago crime film "Undertow" (1949)

The 1949 movie, “Undertow,” is a nicely produced if not too surprising crime story of a returning army vet, Reagan, who travels across the country to marry his long-time sweetheart, the niece of a Chicago racketeer.

Reagan, once a delinquent associated with a gang, is warned off by both the girl’s uncle and the Chicago police who pick him up the moment he sets foot in their city. When he disregards the advice and goes to see his girlfriend, he is slugged and framed for the murder of the uncle.

Wanted by cops, Reagan has nowhere to hide except at the apartment of a young school teacher he met on his cross-country trip.

With all avenues blocked and no leads on who actually killed the uncle, Reagan feels backed into a deadly corner, just like most protagonists in film noir. This is a smoothly told, 71-minute crime picture with compelling stars and a lot of interesting location photography in Chicago and in Reno, Nevada.

“Undertow” stars Scott Brady (brother of Lawrence Tierney) as Reagan, Peggy Dow (an up and coming star of the era who quit Hollywood a few years later) as the teacher, and John Russell (who went on to play a tough sheriff on TV’s “Lawman”). If you look quick, you will spot Rock Hudson (listed as “Roc”) as a detective in one of his earliest roles.

The movie was directed by William Castle, who made crime films and westerns in the 1940s and 1950s, and went on to produce and direct a series of horror movies with promotional gimmicks like “The Tingler,” where theater seats were wired to give viewers a mild zap.

(For other posts on film, TV, and more, check out Todd Mason’s blog.)

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Radio Interviews with Edward Bunker and Danny Trejo

Danny Trejo
Danny Trejo, the movie tough guy, and real-life tough guy, of films like “Machete,” and Edward Bunker, former convict and author of hard novels like No Beast So Fierce, knew each other.

They met in prison.

Edward Bunker
Both Trejo and Bunker spent parts of their youths in California state correctional facilities.

Last week, Terry Gross, host of radio’s Fresh Air program, interviewed Danny Trejo who spoke about his early days and how he came to know Bunker.

Then, in the same one-hour program, Gross replayed a long excerpt from her 1993 interview with Bunker.

Hearing Bunker’s voice was as interesting as what he had to say. Bunker died in 2005.

The interviews can be found and heard here (NPR).

Friday, March 16, 2018

FFB: Odd Man Out by F.L. Green

This week’s read for Friday's Forgotten Books, is an old, possibly forgotten, crime story set in Ireland. It is F.L. Green’s 1945 novel, Odd Man Out.

During World War II, four Belfast men hold up a large linen mill and make off with the payroll. Johnny, head of a political opposition group called The Revolutionary Organization, planned the heist to raise money for the cause. But the plans go wrong, mostly due to him. Feeling ill, he hesitates and is caught outside the front doors by a pursuing mill executive with a gun. Johnny kills the office worker and is himself shot and wounded. He stumbles to the getaway car, but the nervous driver speeds off before he can climb in and he is thrown into the street. Now alone, Johnny has to find a safe place to hide and make his way back to his own neighborhood.

Here the book leaves Johnny and follows the other three robbers as they return to a safe house. Distraught by the killing, the wounding of Johnny and the loss of him during the getaway, they report to the stern second in command of the Organization. Green does a good job depicting the nerves before and during the holdup, and the anxiety and fear after it.

Odd Man Out is divided into two sections. The first continues following the three men who attempt to hide in their neighborhood while police comb the area. Four other men from the group go in search of Johnny. None of this goes well. The police quickly block roads and send out numerous patrols. One man trying to avoid the cops by getting on a crowded city tram is a highlight.

A woman named Agnes, who is in love with Johnny and will do anything to help him, risks her own life by going in search of him. There is a wonderful scene in which Agnes goes to an elderly priest. The priest already has a visitor, a cunning creep holding a birdcage and telling a story of his injured bird. The story of course refers to Johnny and this man’s attempt to sell information.

The second part of the book picks up Johnny’s story and follows him, covering the same time period as the first section and extending to the end.

Odd Man Out is full of excellent scenes. A pair of middle aged sisters find the wounded Johnny and tend to him only to have their husbands come home and insist they put him out in the street. If the police catch them helping him, they will all be sent to prison. But if they turn him in to the cops, the Organization will hunt them down. It is a great dilemma.

Others run into the same problem. The owner of a large, rowdy pub sees Johnny slip in and hide in a secluded part of the bar. Should he throw him out? Should he let him stay? What if his patrons spot him?

There is a lot to like in Odd Man Out. But there is also a lot that put me off. Far too many passages in this book had me thinking of Rule No. 10 of Elmore Leonard’s advice on good writing: “Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.”

Still, Odd Man Out, is a good story and worth reading.

A fairly new edition is available on Amazon (the cover is shown here) with an introduction by Adrian McKinty, author of the excellent, Belfast-set Sean Duffy mysteries.

In 1947, Odd Man Out was produced as a movie starring James Mason as Johnny and directed by Carol Reed. I’ve only seen the picture once and that was many years ago. What I remember is an exciting first half and a dull second half, dominated by the scenery-chewing actor Robert Newton.

As for movies, anyone in the mood for a charming film to watch on St. Patrick’s Day should check out “The Rising of the Moon” showing tomorrow afternoon on TCM.

(For more posts on books, check out Patti Abbott’s blog.)

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Weird Crime Film: Decoy

One of the looniest crime movies I have ever seen is “Decoy,” a low-budget picture from 1946. This one has to be seen to be believed.

The story is a fairly routine tale of betrayal by a femme fatale whose lover is in prison, facing execution, and refusing to reveal where he hid the cash from an armored car robbery.

But there is a science fiction twist to the tale that is riveting. The woman learns of a drug that will revive the dead, but only if administered within one hour of death.

Her plan is to use sex to recruit the prison doctor. He will fall for her, do whatever she wants, take charge of the body, transport it to his office and bring the mug back to life. The woman also recruits the executed gangster’s rival, her new lover, who will force the no-longer-dead guy to reveal the location of the money.

Director Jack Bernhard builds some decent tension as the hour after the execution is filled with bureaucrat obstacles for the doctor. In the hands of a Hitchcock, the tension could have been prolonged and unbearable.

The real highlight of the picture is the revival, when the doctor applies the drug and the man wakes.

Actor Robert Armstrong (the guy who led the expedition to Skull Island and captured King Kong in that original movie) is amazing as the man who comes back from the dead. This scene alone was worth the price of admission.

British actress, Jean Gillie, played the woman, Edward Norris was the dead man’s rival, Herbert Rudley played the doctor, and Sheldon Leonard played a tough cop on the trail of the missing money.

This movie came to my attention thanks to Steve at Mystery*File.

(For more posts on film, TV and more, check out Todd Mason’s site.)

Friday, March 9, 2018

FFB: The Killings at Badger’s Drift by Caroline Graham

The 1987 who-done-it, The Killings at Badger’s Drift, is not the kind of book I usually read, but I’ve enjoyed the British television show, “Midsomer Mysteries,” based on it and the subsequent books by Caroline Graham, so I was curious to see how the series began.

In The Killings at Badger’s Drift, Graham introduces Detective Chief Inspector Tom Barnaby, his junior officer, Detective Sergeant Gavin Troy, and Barnaby’s wife Joyce and daughter Cully, as well as the fictional county of Midsomer, its largest town, Causton, and the rest of the area dotted with picturesque villages.

Badger’s Drift is a tiny English hamlet that seems serene and quaint on the outside, but inside is roiling with all sorts of nasty business. The homes are close enough together to allow the neighbors to know all the comings and goings and everyone else’s business.

One day, Emily Simpson, a retired school teacher, and her friend, Ms. Bellringer, are out in the woods hunting for rare flowers. They separate and after Ms. Simpson spots a rarity, she is shocked by the sight of a couple getting it on in the bushes. Upset by what she has witnessed, she dashes home. The next day she is found dead on the living room floor.

Ms. Bellringer suspects foul play and reports her suspicions to the police. When Sgt. Troy does not seem interested in her story, she insists on speaking to a higher ranking officer. And that is how the case drops on DCI Barnaby.

Barnaby promises to check into the death, calls in the police doctor to have a look and poison is found in the woman's system. The inspector has a murder case on his hands.

Barnaby’s even handed methods of questioning suspects and collecting clues, and his gruff guidance of Troy, made for a breezy and enjoyable read.

For more on the DCI Barnaby series, Graham and the television program, see B.V. Lawson’s post on this book.

(For more posts on books, check out Patti Abbott’s blog.)

Thursday, March 1, 2018

FFB: The Thefts of Nick Velvet by Edward D. Hoch

Nick Velvet is a thief, but not any ordinary thief or even a high-toned thief with expensive tastes. Nick is a thief who specializes in impossible grabs of odd items. He never seals money or jewelry or artwork.

People contact him when they want something unusual stolen and for which they are willing to pay Nick’s fee of between $20,000 and $30,000.

In The Thefts of Nick Velvet, a 1978 collection of short stories by Edward D. Hoch, Nick is hired to steal things like a rare tiger, a major league baseball team, and the water from a man’s swimming pool. In that last, Nick was not allowed to just drain the pool, he had to steal all the water and deliver it to his client.

In my favorite of the 13 stories, Nick is hired to go to a rich man’s country house, break into a store room and steal what he finds there. When Nick arrives at the estate he finds the room empty. So what is there to steal?

The stories usually have at least two mysteries: How will Nick pull off the caper, and, why do his clients want those strange items? Both are cleverly solved by Hoch in a deceptively simple, breezy style.

Edward D. Hoch
Most of the stories in this collection first appeared in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine between 1966 and 1975. Hoch (1930-2008), a prolific writer, had a short story in every issue of the magazine for 34 years.

(For more posts on books, check out Patti Abbott’s blog.)

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Early film noir: Street of Chance

A man walking down a city street gets knocked out by falling debris and wakes up not sure of his own name. Looking around, he has no idea why he is in that part of town. When he goes home, he finds his apartment is not his and his wife moved away a year ago. Who is he? What has he been doing for a year? And worse, who is the tough-looking thug following him?

This is a great set-up for a film noir. It was adapted from a story by one of the great writers of noir tales, Cornell Woolrich.

Woolrich (1903-1968) wrote many stories about people’s fears. His characters often dread something in their past is catching up with them, or that they have inadvertently brushed up against evil, and now it is coming for them. His stories include Phantom Lady, Deadline at Dawn, Black Angel, and “It Had To Be Murder,” the original short story that later was made as the movie “Rear Window.”

In the 1942 film, “Street of Chance,” from Woolrich’s 1941novel, The Black Curtain, the great American character actor Burgess Meredith is the man who finds he has been living two lives. His wife is played by Louise Platt, who appeared three years earlier in John Ford’s “Stagecoach.” The man’s girlfriend for the previous year, a woman he now has no memory of, is played by Claire Trevor. Trevor was also in “Stagecoach" and appeared in several noir films including “Murder, My Sweet” and “Raw Deal." The thug is played by Sheldon Leonard.

“Street of Chance” was efficiently directed by Jack Hivley, who got some good performances out of his players, but could not overcome the low-budget look of the picture.

Still, this movie is a good – if a little obvious – who-done-it, and a first rate example of noir storytelling.

A faded version of this movie is on YouTube. But since this film is hard to find, faded is better than nothing.

(For more posts on film, TV and more, check out Todd Mason’s site.)