Tuesday, December 18, 2018

Down on the Street by Alec Cizak

In Down on the Street, Alec Cizak tells a truly noir story of a guy living too close to the edge, falling for the wrong woman and winding up in more danger than he ever dreamed.

How does an average Joe – his name is actually Lester – get himself into so much trouble? As Mickey Spillane might answer, “It was easy.”

Getting himself out of trouble becomes nearly impossible in this tense, gritty novel.

Lester is a city cab driver barely making it. He resides in the meanest, crummiest apartment house where there is only one bright spot – at least it is bright to him – Chelsea, a young woman living across the hall. Chelsea is a nasty sexpot who gives Lester a tumble one night, but rejects him the next day. He eats his heart out for her as he witnesses a nightly parade of men tramping in and out of her place.

Neither Lester nor Chelsea can make a go of life until Lester gets the bright idea to go into partnership with her. Their business is the oldest profession, with the ineffectual Lester as her pimp and protector.

Hey, what could go wrong?

Only everything.

Cizak’s novel will raise a reader’s anxiety level into the red zone. His writing makes it impossible to stop reading.

The story of these two people reminded me in many ways of Charles Willeford’s 1955 noir novel, Pick-Up (reviewed here), with a touch of Martin Scorsese’s “Taxi Driver.”

Down on the Street, which came out in 2017, is a frightening, nerve jangling tale.

Wednesday, December 12, 2018

Skull Meat by Tom Leins

Last summer, I read Tom Leins’ astonishing novella, Skull Meat, and found myself at a loss for words. This short book has a driving pace and vivid descriptions. It also has some revolting, even horrifying passages.

So the question is: How do I recommend this?

With high praise.

And with a yellow and black hazmat sign slapped on it, warning readers they better have strong stomachs before opening this one.

Skull Meat is the story of Joe Rey, who might charitably be called a private investigator, but who is really just a guy who takes money to do dirty work. Joe is hired by a gangster to mess with a rival called “Swollen” Roland. And, as usually happens in noir novels, nothing goes according to plan.

The story is over-the-top harsh, brutal, violent, ugly, and yet amazingly readable.

Leins’ writing is magnetic, you cannot tear your eyes away from it no matter how awful the scene. And all of his scenes are an assault.

He told David Nemeth, “I wanted it to be a raw, nasty blast of dirty noir.” Skull Meat is raw. It is nasty. And he more than achieved his goal.

This is a new kind of noir.

In the old noir, readers went down mean streets under the safe guidance of Sam Spade, Philip Marlowe, and even Mike Hammer.

But in the noir of Skull Meat, there is no safety. Joe Rey will not protect you. Follow him at your own risk. But once you step into his world, Leins will have you following him right to the end.

I bought the Kindle version, and when it landed on the device I took a quick look. I did not set it aside until I finished the story. Others around the Web had similar reactions. Read the reviews by Colman Keane, Paul D. Brazill, Marietta Miles, and the Grim Reader.

Tom Leins set the story in the English seaside city of Paignton, which is also his hometown. After his seedy, sleazy, scary description of the place, it is a wonder the good folks of Paignton did not tar and feather him, and run him out of town a fence rail.

Friday, December 7, 2018

Lie Catchers by Paul Bishop

The reason I got so little done around the house last weekend was the fault of Paul Bishop. I started reading his recent crime novel, Lie Catchers, and could not put it down.

The book is more than just a crime novel, it is a behind the scenes look at how witness interviews and suspect interrogations work, how the police read the body language and subtle tics that tip them to whether a person is lying or telling the truth.

Lie Catchers is the story of Detective Jane Randall, a 12-year veteran of the Los Angeles Police Department, whose career may be over due to a severe bullet wound to the leg. Her captain gives her a second chance, if she will agree to work with Detective Ray Pagan, a man great at getting the truth out of people, and great at pissing off just about everyone.

Jane, who wants to keep working, becomes partners with Ray and learns he wanted her as his partner. Ray noticed Jane’s special gift for detecting lies. He also has a gift for sensing the emotions of others and using those feelings to get to the truth.

The first case Randall and Pagan catch is actually two cases which may or may not be related. The six-year-old daughter of a tough, rap-record producer is kidnapped from his mansion leaving no clues behind. The same night as the kidnapping, miles away, a six-year-old boy disappears from the home of a well-to-do, straight-laced family. The people involved could not be more different, and yet the circumstances are way too similar to be a coincidence.

Lie Catchers is a fast read thanks to Bishop’s skill as a wordsmith. The cases are a puzzle, the action is quick and packs a punch, and the characters, situations, and work of detectives rings true, thanks to Bishop’s many years on the force. Paul Bishop is a retired LAPD detective.

Thursday, November 8, 2018

FFB: Guns of Brixton by Paul D. Brazill

It is hard as hell to be funny in print – just ask anyone who ever sent a supposedly humorous text only to have it backfire.

But Paul D. Brazill makes funny writing look easy in his crazy crime novel, Guns of Brixton.

Fast paced, this 2014 book is filled with odd, weird, violent, and often hilarious characters.

Two dim goons are sent out to retrieve a lost briefcase for their gangster boss, and manage to screw things up at every turn, including a side trip to rob a jewelry store while dressed in drag.

They kill a man, hide him in the trunk of their car, then crash into the Mercedes-Benz of a young executive who is far tougher than they ever expected, and on and on.

In the meantime, the big boss sends others out to clean up the mess, including a killer priest.

Brazill loads up his story with bizarre twists and some of the most laugh-out-loud writing I have encountered in a long time.

Tuesday, November 6, 2018

“Bohemian Rhapsody” the movie

Despite the reviews, “Bohemian Rhapsody” is not a bad film. What it is, is a safe film.

This biography of the band Queen and its lead singer Freddy Mercury is slick and well crafted with a lot of the group’s hits, one outstanding performance by Rami Malek as Freddy Mercury, and a faithful recreation of the band’s set at the 1985 Live Aid concert (although anyone interested can see the real thing on YouTube).

It is a pleasant evening’s viewing. And that is too bad. It seems the producers sanded off any rough edges on a film that could have been edgy and terrific.

Making movies about celebrities is a risk, and it is especially risky when there is so much original footage about a person or group. Watching actors (and Malek really is very good) portray extraordinary people, just reminds viewers of how talented and charismatic the original subjects were.

After watching “Bohemian Rhapsody,” I made a short list of rock films about actual rock bands and came up with a few I thought were well done. See if you agree.

“Control” about Ian Curtis of the band Joy Division;

“Love & Mercy” about Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys;

“Backbeat” about the Beatles’ early days playing in Hamburg;

“Purple Rain” this may be cheating, but it is a good film with Prince playing Prince;

And my all time favorite, “A Hard Day’s Night,” with the Beatles played by the Beatles.

Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Orson Welles’ Ghost Story

Halloween is this week, so it is a good time to shine a spotlight on a dark, little-known movie.

In the early 1950s, while Orson Welles was in Europe filming his adaptation of Shakespeare’s “Othello,” he also helped his friend, Irish actor Hilton Edwards, by starring in Edwards' eerie short film, “Return to Glennascaul,” which is also called “Orson Welles’ Ghost Story.”

The 22-minute film was shown in 1953 and was nominated for an Academy Award for best two-reel short of that year. (It lost to Walt Disney’s “Bear Country.”)

Here is a link to Edwards’ movie on YouTube.

And here is a link to an introduction to the film by Peter Bogdanovich.

Thursday, October 18, 2018

FFB: The Glass Key by Dashiell Hammett

The Maltese Falcon and The Thin Man are Dashiell Hammett books I’ve read and re-read over the years. But I don’t think I’ve opened his 1931 novel, The Glass Key, since college. It was time for another look.

Between the covers is a good murder mystery and great character study.

Main character Ned Beaumont is a part-time gambler and a full-time political operative working for Paul Madvig, a power broker who runs a small American city.

Madvig also owns a club that offers illegal gambling and booze (the story is set at the end of the Prohibition era). Since Madvig has control of everything in town, the police leave him alone. But he has a problem. The son of a U.S. senator is found dead, murdered, just down the street from Madvig’s club. All of Madvig’s people are up for re-election, including the senator. Madvig cannot have this unsolved murder hanging over them. The opposition will eat them all alive.

Ned Beaumont, who found the body, sets out to clear things up. But the harder he works, the more complicated things get and higher the stakes grow.

A bigger mystery than finding the killer is trying to understand Beaumont’s actions. He will walk right into dangerous situations, and at one point takes a hell of a beating from the guys working for the gangster who is trying to oust Madvig.

Beaumont keeps his cards close to his vest, also keeping his plans and reasons for them a secret from the reader until he springs into action.

Madvig himself throws Beaumont several curves that lead to their splitting up professionally and ending their long-time friendship.

Ned continues to work on the murder case, because more is at stake than Madvig and his political pals.

As always, Hammett’s lean, tight prose style and cooler-than-cool main character make The Glass Key a pleasure to read – and re-read.

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

Thursday, October 4, 2018

Darktown is a Book to Read

In 1948, the Atlanta Police Department, under political pressure, hired its first African-American officers.

Eight men were sworn in and sent out to enforce the law in a community where they were viewed with suspicion by some and hatred by others. Their follow white officers resented them, did not consider them real cops, and would not allow them in their station house. A separate office was set up for the eight black officers in the basement of a YMCA. (The Butler Street Y building still exists in Atlanta.)

Author Thomas Mullen takes readers back to that time and place in his 2016 novel, Darktown.

Just three months on the job, new officers, Lucius Boggs and Tommy Smith (Mullen’s fictional characters), encounter a drunk, middle-age white man who crashed his car into a light pole. The passenger in the car is a young black woman who appears beaten up. The driver ignores Boggs’ request for his license and drives off.

Later, the young woman is found dead. When the detective squad shows no interest in solving the murder, Boggs and Smith start digging. This could get them fired or worse, killed, as they uncover corruption in the police department and local politics.

Mullen blends fact and fiction into a violent and suspenseful crime story.

Wednesday, September 26, 2018

“Crime Wave” is Gritty Film Noir

The 1954 film, “Crime Wave,” was one I had never seen until this summer when it ran on Eddie Muller’s weekly TCM program, Noir Alley.
As Muller said in his introduction to the film (which you can watch here), “Crime Wave” could not be a simpler story. What makes it a terrific film is the way it is told, the tension, the snappy dialogue, and the cast.

Gene Nelson, a dancer who appeared in numerous musicals, does a good job playing an ex-con trying to go straight and live a quiet life with his wife, played by Phyllis Kirk. One night, some guys he knew in the joint barge in on them. They need a place to hide, but when the heat is turned up on them, they kidnap the couple and force the guy into participating in a bank robbery.

The cop turning up the heat is played by tough, towering Sterling Hayden. Muller said Hayden in this movie was author James Ellroy’s model for the brutal police detective, Bud White, in Ellroy’s novel, L.A. Confidential.

The bad guys are played by Ted de Corsia and a young Charles Bronson under his real name, Charles Buchinsky. In a small role, the amazingly odd Timothy Carey, plays a weird hood ordered to watch the wife while the others pull the job. Phyllis Kirk being left alone with Carey is one of the creepiest scenes in film noir.

Every moment of this 73-minute, black and white movie is tough, thanks to the direction of Andre De Toth.

Muller obviously liked this movie and had a lot to say about it before and after the picture. (You can see his post script here.)

Friday, September 21, 2018

FFB: Stool Pigeon by Louis Malley

A man sitting in his car in New York’s Little Italy is shot to death and police Detective Vincent Milazzo is assigned to the case, in Louis Malley’s 1953 novel, Stool Pigeon.

Detective Milazzo, who grew up in the neighborhood, joined the police department, made good, and got promoted to detective, now needs to find a stool pigeon to break this case. But the neighborhood is traditionally wary of talking to the police. Even though Milazzo is one of them, his choice of profession makes him an outsider.

The dead man is part of a pornography racket luring young women, making sure they are soon broke, then sending them into clubs and onto the street to earn for them. These gangsters have mob connections and may even have powerful members of the police force protecting them. Milazzo finds himself up against the old neighborhood, organized crime, and his own department.

Louis Malley obviously knew how the mob and the cops operated in his era. He uses that knowledge and creates some fine character studies in this suspenseful, fast-paced novel. Every page of Stool Pigeon feels real and true.

Little is written about Louis Malley, other than he was born and raised in New York City and he published four novels: Horns for the Devil, 1951, (reviewed here) which was later republished as Shadow of the Mafia; Stool Pigeon, 1953, later republished as Shakedown Strip; Tiger in the Streets, 1957; and The Love Mill, 1961.

According to court records and a newspaper report, Malley was shot and killed in 1962 at age 40.

Today, Malley’s novels are hard to find, but Stark House Press plans to bring out Stool Pigeon as one of its Black Gat Books.

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

Thursday, September 6, 2018

FFB: Dark Hazard by W.R. Burnett

The surprise read of the summer was W.R. Burnett’s 1933 novel, Dark Hazard. I fully expected to enjoy what I thought would be another tough-guy yarn filled with gangsters and gun molls. After all, Burnett made a splash with his first novel, Little Caesar, and went on to write other books populated by the underworld, like High Sierra, and The Asphalt Jungle.

Burnett knew his characters and the worlds in which they lived, and he wrote about them in a clean, hard style. But what surprised me was finding Dark Hazard had a soft heart.

It is the story of Jim Turner, once a high-stakes gambler and race-track regular who has fallen on hard times. It is winter, 1928 and he is making ends meet working as a night clerk at a third-rate Chicago hotel. He has a new, straight-laced wife who knows his past and is happy to see him making an honest – if poorly paid – living. The dull job is driving Jim nuts.

In a great twist, Jim meets a gambler who operates on an even larger scale than Jim ever did in his heyday. The gambler owns an interest in a dog track near Los Angeles and hires Jim to go out there and keep an eye on the operation. Jim jumps at the chance to leave wintery Chicago for sunny California.

At first his wife is happy out there. Then, two things happen. Jim, who swore off gambling for her, starts betting on the greyhounds. And Jim falls in love. He loses his heart to a champion dog named Dark Hazard. The more into dog racing Jim gets, the more he wants to buy and race Dark Hazard. His wife is not happy about any of these developments, nor about Jim’s new friends, a bunch of West Coast gamblers and sharpies.

The story follows Jim for several years through ups and downs, and winds up with an unexpected ending.

Burnett’s skill as a writer not only weaves a completely believable story out of these various threads, but also makes the ins and outs of dog racing understandable and exciting.

As Jim gets sucked back into the gamblers’ orbit, readers will worry about him on every page.

Not far into this book, it hit me I knew this story. Warner Bros. made not one but two movies in the 1930s based on this book. Around the time Warners bought the film rights to his 1929 novel, Little Caesar, Burnett went out to Hollywood to work on movie scripts.

After reading several of Burnett’s books, I’ve got to believe he was one of the writers who taught talking pictures how to talk. All through Dark Hazard, his characters’ dialogue is as sharp and funny and energetic as the roaring 20’s must have been.

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

Thursday, August 30, 2018

She Rides Shotgun, Jordan Harper’s violent debut novel

All the praise heaped on Jordan Harper’s 2017 novel, She Rides Shotgun, is deserved. It is a hell of a book.

A large, muscular, tattooed man, just released from prison arrives at a Southern California middle school, puts a little girl into the stolen car he is driving and zooms off with her.

The man is Nate McClusky and the girl is his daughter, Polly.

While in prison, Nate seriously pisses off the head of a powerful gang. The leader puts out an order for members on the outside to track down and kill Nate – and his family.

The gang gets to Nate’s wife before he can save her. But Nate reaches Polly first and they are off on a high-speed road trip.

Nate realizes there is no safe place. The gang has eyes and ears everywhere. He and Polly elude them, and, to protect the girl, Nate teaches her how to fight and survive. Polly learns fast and changes from the quiet, immature schoolgirl who was bullied, into a confidant, self-sufficient young woman.

Despite her increasing toughness, Polly has a good heart. That heart is the bright spot in this dark, suspenseful book.

Harper does a fine job of telling this rocket-propelled story, and more impressive, it is his first novel.

Wednesday, August 22, 2018

Brutal “Shot Caller” is a Movie to Watch

The 2017 prison film, “Shot Caller,” is not like the old movies where Jimmy Cagney found himself in the big house, nor is it like the men-behind-bars exploitation flicks of the 1970s and ‘80s.

“Shot Caller” is a whole new, ultra-realistic look at the violent world behind the walls of American prisons.

Jacob, a successful businessman with a nice family, causes a deadly accident which lands him jail. He is put in with violent criminals and quickly learns the code of survival: Either become a victim at the mercy of the predators, or become a warrior. Jacob chooses the later and as if being sent to jail was not life-changing enough, needing to choose sides in the gang-run prison yard changes his entire being.

Affiliation with the gang not only means participating in drug smuggling, riots and murder, it also means a lifetime membership extending beyond the wire cages when Jacob is released.

Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, an actor I have seen before in small roles, does a superb job as Jacob. His transformation from the hard-charging executive to the hard-bitten convict is quite a performance. Also excellent in the picture are Lake Bell, Jon Bernthal, Omari Hardwick, Emory Cohen and Benjamin Bratt. I could go on naming the players in this movie because everyone did a fine job, most portraying some of the most convincingly tough inmates seen on screen.

Ric Roman Waugh, who knows more than most about prison life, wrote and directed the movie.

“Shot Caller” is a tough, terrifying and terrific film.

Thursday, August 16, 2018

FFB: Eight Million Ways To Die by Lawrence Block

Eight Million Ways To Die is the fifth novel in Lawrence Block’s mystery-crime series featuring alcoholic ex-cop, Matthew Scudder, and it is a terrific read.

In this book, Scudder is approached by a call girl who wants out of the life but is afraid to confront her pimp. She pays Scudder to break the news to the pimp and to see that he lets her go.

Surprisingly, the pimp agrees with little argument. But a couple days later, Scudder reads in the newspaper of the gruesome murder of the prostitute.

The cops have too many crime reports to handle and cannot devote much time or effort to the call girl’s murder. Strangely, the pimp wants the murder solved, and he pays Scudder to investigate. The pimp says his reputation is on the line and his other girls don’t feel safe. Scudder wonders if the pimp is using him to take the heat off himself as the obvious prime suspect. This is just one of many paths Scudder must go down as more angles to the murder are uncovered.

Block is one of the few novelists who can weave a complicated mystery together with a personal story – Matthew Scudder’s rocky road to recovery. The side trips to bars and AA meetings is never distracting or dull – just the opposite. Scudder’s dual struggle to solve the mystery and fight his urge to drink create a good deal of tension in this book.

Published in 1982, Eight Million Ways To Die takes place in New York City when the Big Apple was in the economic dumps, and Matthew Scudder has to navigating those mean streets. It is also a time before laptops and cell phones, and a reminder of what now seems like the distant past when Scudder has to look for a phone booth to make a call.

Eight Million Ways To Die is a well constructed mystery with plenty of clues for readers to play detective along with Scudder. But, perhaps due to the age of the book, I was on the right track to the killer earlier than I expected. Still, there are enough twists and turns to keep those pages turning.

Some friends have reviewed this book with slightly different takes on it. Col, at Col’s Criminal Library, wrote here, and Sergio at Tipping My Fedora, reviewed the book and the movie here.

(For more posts on books, head over to Todd Mason’s site.)

Wednesday, August 8, 2018

“Fort Bliss” is a Movie to Watch

A fine film I missed when it came out in 2014, but caught up with on video, is “Fort Bliss.”

The title comes from an actual U.S. Army base. It and the West Texas suburbs around it are the setting for the story of Sgt. Maggie Swann, a combat medic, returning home after two years in Afghanistan.

She has a bitter ex-husband who is remarried and who has been taking care of their small son while she was deployed. He does not want to send the boy home with Maggie, although that was their original agreement. Two years in the life of a pre-schooler is a very long time and the boy does not remember Maggie.

Maggie has a hard time adjusting to civilians who do not obey her commands and to a little boy she cannot order to love her.

This is a good story, extremely well told by director Claudia Myers. Myers, who came out of documentaries, including films with returning veterans, wrote the script, and this drama has a strong sense of reality.

All the performances are first rate, particularly that of Michelle Monaghan, who plays Maggie. (Where were the Academy members when it was time for the 2014 Oscar ballots?)

Also in the film were Oakes Fegley as her son, Manolo Cardona as the new man in her life, Ron Livingston as her ex-husband, Emmanuelle Chriqui as his new wife, and Freddy Rodriguez, Pablo Schreiber, Gbenga Akinnagbe as fellow soldiers, each with their own sets of problems.

Friday, August 3, 2018

FFB: The Double Take by Roy Huggins

Last year, I posted a piece about Roy Huggins’ 1949 novel, Lovely Lady, Pity Me (here), and hoped this week to post another positive review of one of his books.

But, The Double Take, from 1946, Huggins’ first book, was not as enjoyable as Lovely Lady...

Private detective Stuart Bailey is hired by a public figure to investigate his wife. Recently married to a younger woman, the man received an anonymous phone call vaguely threatening blackmail over something shady in the woman’s past. The man wants to know what it is and Bailey investigates.

There is more than a little Raymond Chandler influence in this story, but Bailey is no Philip Marlowe, and readers have been down these mean streets before.

Huggins (1914-2002) wrote three crime novels in the 1940s and then went on to a successful career in television creating shows like Maverick, The Fugitive and The Rockford Files.

If his character, Stuart Bailey, sounds familiar it is because Huggins created the TV series, 77 Sunset Strip, in which Bailey was played by Efrem Zimbalist, Jr.

There is one more Huggins novel in my TBR pile, 1947’s Too Late for Tears. With one hit and one miss, I am hoping I like this next book more than The Double Take.

(For more posts on books, check out Todd Mason’s blog.)

Thursday, July 26, 2018

“Small Town Crime” is a Movie to Watch

A garage door on a suburban home opens revealing a painfully hungover man who looks out at a car now parked on his lawn after mowing down his white picket fence.

This is former police detective Mike Kendall.

Kendall knows he has a drinking problem. He also has an employability problem. He can’t seem to find work and the chances of him ever getting back on the force are zero. The reason why is linked to his drinking on duty.

Stumbling through life, starting his days with a cold beer, and dreaming of being a cop on a case again, Kendall is wasting away.

Then, one morning, waking up in a field after a binge, he discovers the dead body of a young woman. Kendall ignores his former boss’ warning to stay out of the investigation and strikes out on his own. He proves to be a smart detective but the situation is way over his head.

Character actor John Hawkes gets the chance to play a leading role here and does a great job. In supporting roles are top-notch veteran actors Octavia Spencer, Anthony Anderson, and Robert Forster.

“Small Town Crime” is a terrific little film written and directed by two brothers, Eshom and Ian Nelms. It is now out on DVD.

I hope the brothers bring back John Hawkes as Kendall for another case.

Friday, July 20, 2018

FFB: Some Die Hard by Stephen Mertz

Stephen Mertz, author of thrillers and suspense novels, came up with a hell of a locked-room mystery for his first book Some Die Hard.

Rock Dugan, former Hollywood stuntman turned private investigator, is swept into the mystery of why a man being chased by two thugs ended up dead. It turns out the man, who bumped into Dugan during his getaway, slipped an envelope into Dugan’s jacket pocket. The envelope contained gambling IOUs obtained by the dead man before he could deliver them to Susan Court.

Intrigued and feeling an obligation to get the envelope into Ms. Court’s hands, Dugan tracks her down. She hires him and takes him to the estate of her wealthy father. The father ends up dying in a very strange manner which Dugan believes to be murder. I will not give away the locked-room device or its solution, and just say that Stephen Mertz spins a fast-paced and enjoyable journey to the conclusion.

Some Die Hard is also a modern hard-boiled detective story in which the PI, Dugan, is pretty tough but not too hard-boiled. He encounters aggressive suspects, a goonish police chief and a former jockey with a pistol before the action really heats up.

Published in 1979, Some Die Hard was reissued a few years ago by Rough Edges Press and the Kindle version I read had a bonus at the end. In it, Stephen Mertz explains how the book first came to be published by a house specializing in paperback originals, and how that publisher tried screw him out of any money owed him. Stephen Mertz also tells how he got his revenge and his money.

(For more posts on books, check out Todd Mason's blog.)

Thursday, July 12, 2018

Noir Alley is a Program to Watch

Turner Classic Movies, the cable channel showing old movies, uncut and commercial free, created a series with Eddie Muller, author and founder of the Film Noir Foundation. The show is called Noir Alley.

Saturday nights at midnight (Eastern time), and repeating Sunday mornings at 10, Muller, the host of the show, presents classic films that fit the definition of “film noir.”

The French term meaning dark movies was adapted from the name of a line of crime novels, including many American books, published in France starting after World War II called série noire.

Film noir generally identifies – and there are a lot of definitions – American crime movies produced from the mid-1940s to the late-1950s that often feature men with sketchy pasts trying to go straight, but who either get sucked into committing crimes or become victims.

The movies usually have dark, high contrast, black and white photography, often framed at odd angles. Some say this look traces back to German Expressionist films of the silent era.

For years, film buffs have argued over film noir, trying to establish an exact definition. But the genre seems to defy rules and provides all kinds of exceptions. If film noir requires black and white photography, what about “Leave Her to Heaven” from 1948, directed by John H. Stahl? Or, “Niagara” from 1953 directed by Henry Hathaway? If film noir requires the unreal world of movie studios where even exteriors were built on sound stages, what about the documentary style of “The Naked City” from 1948 directed by Jules Dassin, filmed on location in New York?

The debate goes on and on. So I will sum up my definition of film noir by using Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s quote about pornography: "I know it when I see it."

Eddie Muller, introduces each of the films, some of them restored by his foundation, and he always gives an informed and entertaining preface and postscript to each showing.

For movie buffs, this is a great series, and for film noir fans, this program is not to be missed.

To check out the Noir Alley site, click here. To see the program's schedule, click here. And for the Film Noir Foundation, click here.

Wednesday, July 4, 2018

Happy Fourth from “The Great Escape”

A clip  from the 1963 movie “The Great Escape.”

While busy tunneling and preparing a massive escape from a German POW camp, three American service men – played by Steve McQueen, James Garner, and Jud Taylor – also build a still.

They pour moonshine for their allies to celebrate the Fourth of July.

Thursday, June 21, 2018

FFB: Horns for the Devil by Louis Malley

Louis Malley’s 1951 novel, Horns for the Devil, may be my favorite read of the year.

It is the story of Severio Lebbrosa, a rising star in the New York Mafia of the 1940s and 1950s. At 23, he runs an illegal, high-stakes gambling joint frequented by celebrities, politicians, judges, and mob bosses.

Severio hates the local mob lieutenant who oversees all the neighborhood’s activities, including Severio’s game. He has been having run-ins with this low-level boss since he was a kid, and worse, the guy is married to his sister. After the mobster beats his sister, Severio sets out to kill him, which he does early in the book. This sets off the tense story of Severio trying to survive despite the Mafia’s law that anyone who kills a boss will himself be killed – no exceptions. If they catch on that it was Severio, even his godfather, Don Saldona, won’t be able to help him.

Louis Malley gets many things right about the inner workings of the Mafia, which is an achievement since most of the country had no idea what actually went on behind the scenes of organized crime until a hit man named Joe Valachi testified before Congress in 1963. Peter Maas wrote about the real-life gangster in his 1968 book, The Valachi Papers.

Severio could be an earlier version of Sonny Corleone, the volatile oldest son of Don Corleone in Mario Puzo’s 1969 novel The Godfather. He also seemed like one of the wiseguys in Nichols Pileggi’s 1985 non-fiction book, Wiseguy.

The sketchy information available about Malley suggest he grew up in a section of New York City dominated by mobsters. Horns for the Devil is set in Manhattan's Little Italy and as much as it is a suspenseful crime story, it is also a portrait of that neighborhood in the mid-20th century.

Malley’s writing is blunt and forceful and his knowledge of the place and the people comes through on every page. Some of it is so tough it is funny, as when Severio tries to charm a hat-check girl in a nightclub. “Muriel turned around and gave him a look like someone forgot to flush the toilet.”

The title, Horns for the Devil, refers to a symbol sometimes worn on a chain around the neck to ward off the devil.

In 1952, Gallimard published Horns for the Devil in France. The following year, Malley was awarded the Grand Prix de Littérature Policière for the best mystery of 1952, Publishers Weekly reported.

Malley wrote four crime novels: Horns for the Devil, 1951, which was later reissued as Shadow of the Mafia; Stool Pigeon, 1953, later reissued as Shakedown Strip; Tiger in the Streets, 1957; and The Love Mill, 1961.

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

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

The Words of Anthony Bourdain

Sometime in 2002, I found a new show on cable that sounded good – travels to exotic locations. It was Cook’s Tour on the Food Network hosted by a New York City chef who had become a celebrity after writing a behind-the-scenes book about restaurants called, Kitchen Confidential.

Viewing one half-hour episode hooked me. The chef was a witty, adventurous, wise-cracking, cool guy named Anthony Bourdain. He went places few would ever see, or ventured into areas few would ever enter.

He ate great meals, often simple dishes made by ordinary people. He ate exotic foods. And sometimes he ate nightmarish items. The beating heart of a cobra was horrifying. Bourdian consumed those things as not only a challenge, but also because they were eaten in by the locals.

Bourdain met people, engaged them in conversation, drank vast amounts of alcohol and smoked scores of cigarets.

But as much as I enjoyed living vicariously through his televised travels, it was his narration of the shows that kept me coming back. Through 16 years of episodes on three different channels, Bourdain was always interesting, observant and humorous, all presented in his original and unique voice. The man had a marvelous facility with words. All those words, I have to believe, were Bourdain’s own. They were too close to the way he spoke on camera or when interviewed on news or talk shows. His conversations in his shows could go anywhere, from local food and customs to the history of the place he was visiting, or from current events to the characters on Gilligan’s Island.

It wasn’t all fun. Sometimes the adventures turned dangerous. In 2006, Bourdain and crew were in Beirut when a conflict between Lebanon and Israel erupted. They wound up stuck in a hotel with no way of getting out until U.S. Marines landed on a nearby beach and took them and other tourists out of the country. But the TV team first had to sneak out of the hotel, slip past soldiers, and get onto that beach. This episode can be viewed here.

Bourdain’s Cook’s Tour lasted two seasons. Then he moved to the Travel Channel with a new show called No Reservations, with hour-long episodes, but the same basic structure as the previous show. He and a small crew would go to a country, take in the sights, explore the food, and meet the people. Sometimes the country was the U.S. No Reservations lasted seven seasons. Bourdain next moved to CNN with a new show called Parts Unknown, which was also structured like the previous two shows. He was at CNN from 2013 until this month when he took his own life in a hotel in France.

Over the last 16 years of following his shows, I also read several of his books, the non-fiction Kitchen Confidential and Cook’s Tour (I’ve yet to get to some of his later books). I also read some of his crime fiction, his novel Bone in the Throat and the collection of stories about Bobby Gold. Of those works, I preferred his non-fiction. He also wrote an occasional article for magazines, and I kept up with those.

The magazine article that propelled Bourdain out of the kitchen and into a new career as a writer, traveler and eater of exotic foods, was a 1999 piece that ran in The New Yorker magazine, called “Don’t Eat Before Reading This.” The article can be found here. His book, Kitchen Confidential, grew out of this story.

Like everyone, I was stunned by the news on Friday, June 8, that Bourdain was dead.

I did not know the man, but through his work on the page and on the screen, I felt like I did.

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

MOVIE: The Saint in London (1939)

“The Saint in London” is considered the best of the seven-film series of B-movies made by RKO in the 1930s and 1940s featuring Simon Templar.

Templar, aka the Saint, was Leslie Charteris’ sophisticated thief and modern-day Robin Hood.

After watching “The Saint in London” recently, I would agree. It is the third entry in the series, the second to star George Sanders – the best Simon Templar, in my opinion – and the only one produced in England. Later Saint movies were filmed there, but of the original series, this (I am pretty sure) was the only one. All the others were made in Hollywood.

The use of actual London locations and an English cast, including a young Sally Gray as Simon Templar’s girlfriend, was a big plus.

Unlike the original Leslie Charteris story it is based on, Simon Templar and Penny Parker (a name change from the original story) do not live together. He meets her for the first time at the beginning of the film. After that, she comes and goes easily from Templar’s London townhouse.

Sally Gray did not make too many movies, but was a good actress with a fantastic voice, and who was memorable in the movie, “Green for Danger.”

George Sanders was perfect casting as Simon Templar. He could pull off the debonair, witty, anti-hero better than almost anyone. Sanders is perhaps best known for his role as the theater critic in “All About Eve.” The only drawback to Sanders as the Saint was that he did not seem young enough or fit enough to match Leslie Charteris’ descriptions. But, for that, they would have needed Errol Flynn, which would have made it a whole different kind of picture.

The film follows a Leslie Charteris’ story, but if his plot about a gang attempting to distribute illegal Italian currency was thin, the filmmakers played it down even more, the way Alfred Hitchcock used a “McGuffin” – a plot device to thrust the characters into action, but something the audience does not care about. That works thanks to the brisk direction of John Paddy Carstairs. The film also has a nice, dark, noir look to it.

Now for a bit of confusion: The film, “The Saint in London,” is not based on Leslie Charteris’ 1934 book, The Saint in London, which is a collection of three novellas. It is based on The Million Pound Day, which is a novella found in a 1932 collection of three called, The Saint versus Scotland Yard. (My review of the novella is here.)

Thursday, June 7, 2018

FFB: The Saint / The Million Pound Day by Leslie Charteris

It has been a long time since I read any of Leslie Charteris’ stories of Simon Templar – aka the Saint. The last time may have been in high school – so make that a very long time.

Last week, I bought a $1.49 Kindle copy of The Saint versus Scotland Yard, a 1932 book containing three Saint novellas – The Inland Review, The Million Pound Day, and The Melancholy Journey of Mr. Teal – and read the middle story first.

In it, Simon Templar, driving back to London at night, stops to help a dazed, exhausted and beaten man running from a pursuing thug. The thug is part of a gang planning to pass a million pounds worth of illegal Italian currency. The man Templar helps is an Italian official in England to stop the gang. The Saint hides the man in a safe place and takes up the cause.

None of this will spoil the mystery of the story because there is not much of a mystery in The Million Pound Day. The novella is an adventure yarn with the Saint hunting down the leader of the gang while dodging the police. The cops are always eager to slap the cuffs on Simon Templar because the Saint frequently breaks the law, but usually to help others.

The dashing, erudite Templar goes head to head with the gang’s leader, matching wits and showing just how unflappable he can be in the face of danger. At one point, a gun at his back, he causally composes a little ditty about the situation just to annoy the bad guys and amuse himself.

But, occasionally, the Saint can be an obnoxious jerk, as when he eludes Inspector Claud Eustace Teal of Scotland Yard with a rapid fire stream of pure BS. In that instance, he was assisted by his girlfriend, Patricia Holm.

Templar and Holm live together in the Saint’s London townhouse, an interesting plot element considering the era.

The Million Pound Day is a fast, easy read, written in a breezy, lighthearted style, although Charteris’ unusual word choices sent me to the dictionary a few times, looking up words like “spondulix,” an archaic term for money. The language, especially Templar’s clever dialogue add to the fun of this Saint story.

The one sour note was the racist descriptions of one member of the gang. Maybe that was acceptable then, but we know better now. (I hope.)

Leslie Charteris (1907-1993) introduced Simon Templar in his 1928 book Meet the Tiger. He continued writing Saint stories until 1963 when other authors took over the writing under Charteris’ guidance.

Monday, June 4, 2018

“The Rider” is a Movie to See

Chloé Zhao's quietly moving modern-day western “The Rider” is not so much a drama as an experience.

The film blends fact and fiction in the story of Brady Blackburn, a young rodeo rider, who after an accident and a serious head injury can no longer do what he lives to do.

Brady is played by Brady Jandreau, a former rodeo rider who had the same thing happen to him.

Jandreau can not only mesmerize audiences, he can also mesmerize horses. In an astounding scene, Jandreau, who is also a trainer, approaches a wild horse in a corral and gently calms it.

This movie's story and the images will stay with you long after the lights come up.

If you need more convincing before going to see this excellent little film, check out Justin Chang’s review in the Los Angeles Times.

Tuesday, May 29, 2018

John Garfield in Pride of the Marines

Yesterday was Memorial Day, a national holiday for Americans to reflect on the sacrifices made by our military men and woman, past and present.

On Memorial Day, I caught a picture I had heard about and watched clips of, but had never seen from beginning to end. The movie was “Pride of the Marines” from 1945.

Made during World War II, it was based on the true story of Al Schmid, a Marine whose heroism during the fighting on Guadalcanal in 1942 earned him the Navy Cross, but also cost him his eyesight.

The film is in four parts: Schmid and his budding romance with a hometown girl just before the war; Schmid in combat; Schmid recovering in a military hospital; and Schmid returning home. The first section is pretty corny by today’s standards, but, as was done in “The Deer Hunter,” it showed the characters before the war touched any of them. The second section, set mostly in a foxhole where Schmid and two other Marines fought off overwhelming attacks, was harrowing. The sweat and tension of these men anticipating a night raid and the violence and chaos of the attack was outstanding work by three actors – John Garfield as Schmid, Dane Clark and Anthony Caruso. Garfield was one of the finest actors of his generation.

Another outstanding sequence was Schmid’s resistance to being sent home from the hospital, accepting that he would never see again, and facing his fiancee. And there was a small but poignant moment when an African-American train porter told Schmid he had read about him Life magazine and that it was an honor to have him on his train. The porter then refused to take the tip Schmid’s buddy offered. The simplicity of the scene and the dignity of the porter and of the Marines made the moment memorable. Credit for it, and for the entire movie, goes to director Delmer Daves and writer Albert Maltz.

Daves, who had worked in Hollywood since the early 1920s, wrote and directed films across many genres, including the Humphrey Bogart noir, “Dark Passage,” and the original “3:10 to Yuma.” Albert Maltz was nominated for an Academy Award for his screenplay for “Pride of the Marines.” Two years later, Maltz was one of the “Hollywood 10,” writers and directors who refused to cooperate with the House Un-American Activities Committee, and was sent to jail.

Garfield, Daves and Maltz had worked together on the 1943 submarine war film, “Destination Tokyo,” and Garfield may have known Maltz from his New York days with the Group Theater.

Friday, May 25, 2018

FFB: The Men From The Boys by Ed Lacy

Back in February, George Kelley and James Reasoner, reviewed the same book on the same day, and that sent me hunting for Ed Lacy’s 1956 crime novel, The Men From The Boys.

I found a copy of this hard-boiled, noir novel of a thuggish ex-cop.

Once the toughest detective on the force until he was shoved out in disgrace, Marty Bond, now older and with many regrets, gets the chance to make some things right with one last case.

Lacy pulls no punches with Marty. He is not a good guy. Readers will understand him while not liking him.

This suspense story comes to an action-packed conclusion with a weird final scene. But that hardly matters. It was the characters, the lean, punchy writing style, and the cynical dialogue that kept me turning the pages of this short book.

Ed Lacy (1911-1968) was the pen name of Leonard Zinberg, a prolific writer of novels and short stories from the mid-1930s to the late 1960s.

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

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.)