Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Thrill Me! My Favorite "Thrillers," Part One

I had never even heard of the Boris Karloff anthology series Thriller (1960-62), until I caught it very late one night on the Sci-Fi Channel about seventeen years ago.  (This was back in the not too distant past when they were still airing original Mystery Science Theater 3000 episodes.)  But then I wasn't and am not alone, surely: compare the 848 ratings for Thriller on imdb.com with the 46, 438 for The Twilight Zone and the 9671 for Alfred Hitchock Presents. (Let's not even get into the 662, 468 for The Walking Dead.)

I can't recall for certain the first episode I saw--I think it was The Terror in Teakwood--but I know I was immediately hooked.  This was beautifully done classic horror, not the kind of thing I had seen much even in classic anthology series like the madly creative and endlessly versatile The Twilight Zone and the macabre and sophisticated Alfred Hitchcock Presents.  And then there was Boris Karloff!  As a kid I had loved the classic monster films and Karloff especially.  But the series came and went on Sci-Fi and it was not until a decade had elapsed that it was released on DVD, by Image Entertainment--and then it was rather expensive!

Finally, six years later, I acquired a set and I am hugely enjoying both old Thriller favorites as well as ones I never saw originally.  Having watched the first season in its entirety, I thought I would name my favorite episodes.  It's probably a pretty conventional list of choices, but you tell me.

#12 A Good Imagination
It was either going to be this or Late Date--based on a Cornell Woolrich "How do I get rid of the body?" story--for the #12 spot, but it was the wicked mordant humor of A Good Imagination that settled the matter for me.  As Thriller fans know, this episode is not supernatural horror, but rather one of the series' crime tales, which are usually, rightly I think, maligned by Thriller fans as inferior to the horror episodes.  Thriller adaptations of Margaret Millar's Rose's Last Summer (with a good performance by Mary Astor), Charlotte Armstrong's The Mark of the Hand, Philip Macdonald's Fingers of Fear and Fredric Brown's Knock Three-One-Two are earnest but weirdly uninvolving, I think.  However, A Good Imagination is a vintage slice of the mirthful wickedness we associate with Alfred Hitchcock Presents.

The episode benefits hugely from the lead performance of the superb character actor Edward Andrews (today most people probably know him as Grandpa Howard in John Hughes' 1984 teen film Sixteen Candles).  Andrews plays a seemingly mild bookseller who resorts to murder to solve the problem of his flighty, philandering wife (the recently deceased Patricia Barry, a natural for such roles; she shows up again in the next episode on the list). After knocking off her lover, he finds that murder begets murder....

Also in the cast is the late Ed Nelson, playing a hunky handyman.  We'll see him again, in an episode farther down, where he plays, well, a hunky handyman.  Series television back then certainly depended on those actors who could reliably play a type!  Nelson gets to to play a couple of more, um, developed characters in Thriller's second season.

One of the amusing bits in the episode, incidentally, is how the bookseller gets his murder inspirations from the "classics."  The final scene might remind you somewhat of a classic Alfred Hitchcock Presents too.

#11 The Purple Room
The seventh episode in the series, The Purple Room was the first to incorporate supernatural elements (or are they???) in an episode, in a riff on the classic bit of the brash person (in this case Rip Torn) who must spend the night in a haunted house (the Bates house from Psycho, which will make further appearances in the series). The moments that a deliciously scenery-rending Rip Torn--appropriate name--spends alone (?) in the house are quite eerily done, although the resolution isn't landed quite as solidly as I would have liked.  Rip Torn's cousins are played by Richard Anderson and Patricia Barry.

#10 Dark Legacy
This one starts off as well as any episode in the series, with relatives gathered on a stormy night in a creepy house where their wealthy kinsman, who just happens to be a dabbler in the dark arts, is dying. (The whole splendid milieu looks like something out of a Charles Addams book.)

The magician's nephew, a hack magician (Harry Townes, who we will see again below), inherits his uncle's book of sorcery and soon is putting it to work to advance his career.  What will be the result?  Nothing good, we can be sure.  Most atmospherically directed by John Brahm, the film has some fine flourishes, though the story is not exceptional, and the actress who plays Townes' wife (Ilka Windish) goes over-the-top too quickly, detracting from the fright factor rather than adding to it. When you scream at everything, then nothing becomes frightening!  A good episode, but more style over substance.

The best performance by far in the episode is given by veteran Milton Parsons, playing the sorcerer's butler, but he doesn't get enough to do.  Parsons enlivened (?) film and television for years with his ghoulish presence and delivery.

#9 The Poisoner

This is a nicely done Victorian family murder story, where poison plays a tremendous role, as it always should in a Victorian family murder story--unless Lizzie Borden is involved of course. (The Victorian era was such a great era for poisoning.)  What can gentleman Thomas Edward Griffith (based on a real life personage, Thomas Griffiths Wainewright, 1794-1847) do about his irksome relatives and in-laws?  Quite a lot, it seems!

A neat script, but what brings this one the higher marks is the terrific performance by Murray Matheson as the murderer Griffith.  In this role Matheson is so elegantly and coldly contemptuous of his admittedly vexatious victims that he has stayed indelibly fixed in my mind, as a drolly deadly yet in some ways ultimately moving character.

Born in Australia, Matheson was another fine character actor who appeared on countless television programs from the 1950s into the 1980s, including one of the classic Twilight Zones, where he played the clown in the surreal Five Characters in Search of an Exit.

About the real person on whom the Matheson character is based, the dandyish artist, essayist, poet and possible multiple poisoner Thomas Griffiths Wainewright, there has been much controversy up to this day. The inspiration for a story by Charles Dickens and the subject of an essay by Oscar Wilde, Wainewright continues to attract the interest of writers in the modern era.

#8 The Hungry Glass
A classic haunted house story, based on a short story by Robert Bloch, who by providing either the original source material or adapting that of others, gave us some of the best hours of the series.  An attractive young couple (William Shatner, Joanna Heyes) purchase a long abandoned cliffside mansion in New England with a history of violent deaths.  What could go wrong?  Very evocatively shot, with supporting performances by Russell Johnson and Elizabeth Allen as another nice young couple who become friends of the Shatner and Heyes characters.  (Everyone else in the town would seem to be more comfortable in an HP Lovecraft adaptation).  It's somehow kind of thrilling to see Captain Kirk and the Professor from Gilligan's Island thespianing with each other. Shatner, you no doubt will agree, is much more flamboyant, but I think they play off against each other well, Johnson's stolidness balancing the Shat's patented rising, halting-voiced hysteria.

Interestingly, Shatner's character is a Korean War veteran who still suffers PTSS.  In this respect he rather reminded me of his character in one of the great Twilight Zones, Nightmare at 20, 000 Feet. Shatner's greatest Thriller, however, is not The Hungry Glass but The Grim Reaper, where we will also see Elizabeth Allen return. (See below.)

#7 Well of Doom
A superbly pulpish tale brought to splendidly eerie life.  On the way to his wedding a Scottish laird and his estate manager are abducted by a hellish, vengeance-spouting maniac (Henry Daniell) and his hulking assistant (Richard Kiel).  What dread fate lies in store for them?

The great English actor Henry Daniell popped up in five Thriller episodes, but this is my favorite one with him.  My, does he get to chew the scenery!  Wonderful, scary performance.  In the 1940s, Daniell appeared in both the Sherlock Holmes and Charlie Chan franchises.  (He, along with Lionel Atwill and George Zucco as I recollect, played Moriarty to Basil Rathbone's Sherlock Holmes and Nigel Bruce's Watson.  He was also in The 13th Chair, The Suspect (with Charles Laughton), The Sea Wolf (fighting it out with Errol Flynn) and, along with Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi, The Body Snatcher.  He died not long after Thriller went off the air and surely Well of Doom offered one of the best of his later performances.

It's also fun to see the towering Richard Kiel, who was as familiar on television and film in the 60s and 70s playing giants as Billy Barty was playing midgets, in a role where he gets actually to speak as well as loom menacingly.

not Janet Leigh but Pippa Scott

#6 Parasite Mansion
What's a thriller without southern Gothic?  Thriller's moonlight and magnolia mayhem in the South always seems to take place in Louisiana, in crumbling old mansions of course, (The Purple Room is set in the state too). I lived in Louisiana for seven years, and it's certainly an evocative locale, so why not?

Here a pretty and earnest college teacher (Pippa Scott) following a road detour somewhere in the bayou, wrecks her car (after a wheel is shot out) and is knocked out in the process.  When she wakes up she finds herself a prisoner in the most cobweb-strewn southern mansion you surely have ever seen.  Also residing at the house are a malevolent rifle-toting boy (popular child actor Tommy Nolan), his older, drunk brother (B-film star James Griffith) and Granny Harrod, a cackling old harridan played with characteristic panache by Jeanette Nolan (Lady Macbeth in Orson Welles' film version of Macbeth as well as Granny Hart in one of the best Twilight Zones, Jess-Belle).

This episode typifies what Thriller does so well: trap someone in an old dark house for 48 minutes and follow them around as they try desperately to escape.  This is a little different from the standard film formula, however, in that the heroine is not  a shrinking violent but really in effect a paranormal investigator. When I watched Pippa Scott climbing up those hidden stairs to the attic I was reminded rather of that determined youngster Nancy Drew.  Her courage under mire may tamp down the scares a bit, though there are some very good ones indeed. However, this is really a splendid paranormal mystery, based on a fine 1943 short story of the same title by Alabama weird fiction writer Mary Elzabeth Couselman.

#5 Mr. George
Based on the short story of the same title by the incredibly prolific author August Derleth, Mr. George tells the story of a wealthy, orphaned little girl (Gina Gillespie, who would soon play the young Joan Crawford in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?) who is imperiled, right at the turn of the nineteenth century, by the machinations of her awful, greedy cousins, the Leggetts: childish Adelaide (Lillian Bronson), sanctimonious Jared (Howard Freeman) and just plain mean Edna (Virginia Gregg).  Good thing for Gina, she has a protector, Mr. George....

This episode is like a Grimm's fairy tale of sorts, with childish innocence menaced really quite nastily by adult evil.  Like several other episodes of Thriller, this one was directed by the veteran actress Ida Lupino and she does a splendid job.  There's lots of creative camerawork and superb performances from the evil cousins.  In her severe black hairdo Virginia Gregg in particular was Emmy-worthy.  Yikes.

Edna is not happy--but then she never is.

I should mention that the wonderful musical score adds a lot to the episode, as it does to many a Thriller.  The score here, as in 17 additional Thrillers, was written by Jerry Goldsmith, who would go on to win an Oscar for his film score for The Omen.  Altogether he was nominated for Oscars 18 times between 1963 (Freud) and 1999 (Mulan).  His nominated scores included those for genre films Planet of the Apes, Chinatown, Star Trek: The Motion Picture, The Boys from Brazil, Poltergeist, Basic Instinct and LA Confidential.  An impressive record!  Indeed, Thriller's only Emmy nomination was for its music.  Thriller lost to a concert performance conducted by Leonard Bernstein, which seems a little unfair.

#4 The Terror in Teakwood
A deadly delight from start to finish.  First, what a cast this episode has!  It stars beautiful and classy Hazel Court, known to vintage film horror fans for her work around this time with Hammer Films and Roger Corman, but who also was a contributor of note to Alfred Hitchcock Presents (particularly Arthur, with Laurence Harvey) and to B crime films; Guy Rolfe, best known to horror fans for William Castle's Mr. Sardonicus, which came out the same year as Terror in Teakwood, but who also appeared in such films as Ivanhoe and Nicholas and Alexandra; Reggie Nalder, of The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956) and the 1979 Salem's Lot vampire miniseries (two very memorable roles!); and Charles Aidman, an actor who radiated a Henry Fonda like decency and who was familiar face for years on television.  (He starred in two of the best episodes of the original Twilight Zone series, And When the Sky Was Opened and Little Girl Lost, and narrated the first two seasons of the 1980s TZ revival.  There's also, in supporting performances, the great Russian-born actor Vladimir Sokoloff (who also shows up in Mr. Sardonicus) and Linda Watkins, stage star of the 1920s and 1930s, who will be appearing very soon again on this list, for another brilliant Season 1 Thriller episode.

Okay, this is Charles Aidman in The Twilight Zone
but, damn, what a beautifully composed shot
Honestly, there was enough story and star power here to make a full film out of the story, but did it really need an additional half hour to add to its 48 minutes?  It packs a wallop as is.  The story concerns the classic "triangle," here composed of the brilliant, though insanely jealous (of course!), concert pianist (Rolfe), his beautiful wife (Court) and her puppy dog loyal admirer (Aidman).  But there's a lot more to the story than that. 

Why is a creepy central European graveyard caretaker trailing this trio around?  And what is in Rolfe's teakwood box? 

Admittedly, the plot is not exactly original, but it is carried off with such virtuosity and panache.  The music scenes are especially effective.  For sheer dramatic tension I'll take Rolfe attempting to play the notorious Carnowitz Sonata over that damn baseball bat in The Walking Dead any day.  Linda Watkins in her terrific supporting role as a music critic who colorfully professes loathing for Rolfe's concert pianist character contributes both humor and intensity.

#3 Pigeons from Hell
This is one I missed back on Sci-Fi, but I had heard so much about from viewers who had first seen it as kids or teens back in 1961 that I was really looking forward to it.  I don't think it's the very best Thriller as many say, but I can certainly see the appeal.  It's a strong southern Gothic reminiscent not only of works by Truman Capote, Tennessee Williams and William Faulkner (albeit with a strong otherwordly aspect), but also the Grand Guignol of Hush, Hush Sweet Charlotte (1964).

Based on a posthumously published 1938 story by Robert E. Howard, Pigeons from Hell tells the story of two young Yankee brothers (Brandon De Wilde, David Whorf) whose cars bogs down, literally, in the countryside while the brothers are touring plantation country in Louisiana.  Nothing to do but to go out and investigate that long-abandoned mansion nearby! But why are there so many pigeons around the house?

I can see why this one was such a big hit with kids and teens watching Thriller forty-five years ago. The atmosphere of the plantation is superbly done and the tension level high until something...rather horrible happens. 

Then we move into a period of investigation, which to me doesn't quite live up to the beginning but is still excellent and still has its shocks, which I of course shall not divulge.

For me the highlight of the second half of the episode was Paul Renard's performance as an old black man, a former employee on the plantation, who knows things about the house's history, terrible things, he doesn't want to divulge.

I agree with commentators who have compared this one to a Val Lewton film: it's easy to imagine this sort of material in a movie directed by one of Lewton's top directors, Jacques Tourneur, who helmed Cat People, I Walked with a Zombie and The Leopard Man.

The very blonde Brandon De Wilde--who played Paul Newman's nephew in the critically-acclaimed film Hud and was nominated for best supporting actor a decade earlier for his scene-stealing performance in the classic Alan Ladd western Shane--and the brunette David Whorf, who later became a very busy assistant director, so much resemble the Hardy Boys of that period that I could not help but feel this was a deliberate image the Pigeons director, John Newland, was conveying. (Honestly, these boys should have gotten a HB television series, way before Parker Stevenson and Shaun Cassidy.) Tragically, Brandon De Wilde died in a car accident in 1972, when he was only 30, leaving behind not only Shane and Hud but Pigeons from Hell as some of his best known projects.

Robert E. Howard (1930-1936) lived most of his adult life in Cross Plains, Texas.  On his father's side he had some German ancestry, which out of a sense of atavistic wish-fulfillment Howard, creator of the renowned fantasy warrior Conan the Barbarian, seems to have believed was Scandinavian, or, as he put it, "Viking"). 

The parents of his father, Isaac Mordecai Howard, came from southern Arkansas, not far from the town of Camden, and his maternal grandmother, Louisa Elizabeth Henry Howard (1835-1916), used to tell young Robert Old South ghost stories. These shuddery tales became an obvious source of influence on Pigeons from Hell

Joe Hardy, wait, I mean Brandon De Wilde

"In many of her tales," Howard recalled, there "appeared the old, deserted plantation mansion, with the weeds growing rank about it and the ghostly pigeons flying up from the rails of the verandah." Seemingly these ghostly pigeons were direly omnipresent, murmuring and flapping their wings, in "negro" ghost stories he was told as well:

The one to whom I listened most was the old cook, Aunt Mary Bohannon, who was nearly white, about one-sixteenth negro, I should say....

Another tale she told that I have often met with in negro-lore....Two or three men--usually negroes-- are traveling in a wagon through some isolated district--usually a broad, deserted river-bottom.  They come onto the ruins of a once-thriving plantation at dusk, and decide to spend the night in the deserted plantation house.  This house is always huge, brooding and forbidding, and always, as the men approach the high-columned verandah, through the high weeds that surround the house, great numbers of pigeons rise from their roosting places on the railing and fly away.  The men sleep in the big front-room with its crumbling fire-place, and in the night they are awakened by a jangling of chains, weird noises and groans from upstairs....Then a terrible apparition appears to the men who flee in terror.  This monster, in all the tales I have heard, is invariably a headless giant...and it is sometimes armed with a broad-ax....

I'll leave it to those of you haven't yet seen Pigeons from Hell to conclude how closely this description matches the television adaptation!

Shortly before Robert E. Howard wrote Pigeons from Hell, the U. S. National Park Service established the Historic American Buildings Survey to document American architecture and, not altogether incidentally, provide employment for architects, draftsmen and photographers in need of remunerative work during the Great Depression.  Some of the most evocative photographs of decaying Louisiana plantation houses were taken during this decade as part of the survey.  Walker Evans (1903-1975) was another famous Depression-era photographer of these homes.  Thriller did a wonderful with the Pigeons from Hell adaptation of capturing this magnolia-scented atmosphere of decay and death.

#2 The Cheaters
Based on a 1947 Robert Bloch story (there is also a resemblance to Daphne Du Maurier's most unsettling Fifties tale The Blue Lenses), The Cheaters shows that horror can do more than merely frighten: it can make us think. (Perhaps to think is to be frightened.) 

This one opens with a prologue in which a man (Henry Daniell, yay!) creates a pair of spectacles that allows him to see the truth in others and, when he looks in the mirror, in himself.  The results aren't pretty.  The rest of the episode take us through a series of vignettes in which we see the spectacles (aka "cheaters") having an impact in the modern day, leading up to a shocking climax.  Simply a wonderful story, translated to film with great finesse and boasting particularly good performances by veteran the Oscar-nominee Mildred Dunnock (playing one her patented batty old ladies), then relative newcomer Jack Weston and Harry Townes (back again).  Ed Nelson and Linda Watkins again deliciously deliver in smaller roles.

#1 The Grim Reaper
Probably not just my favorite episode of Thriller in Season 1 but my favorite Thriller episode period and one of my favorite episodes of any television program ever.  It's got superb pacing, scripting, acting, atmosphere--oh, it's simply wonderful!

The Grim Reaper easily could have been a stage play with diabolically eerie elements. After a memorable prologue with a Henry Daniell cameo (yay again!), we join Paul--a handsome if stolid young accountant played by William Shatner--on his visit to his eccentric mystery-writing aunt, Beatrice Graves (a deliciously dotty Natalie Schafer), at her newly-acquired mansion, "Grave's End," where she resides with her newly-acquired husband, the debonair--in a slithery sort of way--Gerald Keller (Scott Merrill), and her secretary, lovely Dorothy Lyndon (Elizabeth Allen, a blonde this time rather than the brunette she was in The Hungry Glass).

Is he just a gigolo?

To his aunt Paul expresses concern not about her having acquired a melancholy old mansion (a classic California Spanish Revival that looked like something out of Hollywood's Golden Age), or about her having acquired a studly young (relatively) gigolo, but, rather, about her having bought a "cursed" painting by a mad French artist of...the Grim Reaper!

Like the Hope Diamond, the Grim Reaper painting is said to bring death to its owners. Beatrice informs Paul that she has bought the painting precisely because of the curse: it makes for good publicity for a mystery writer.  Paul fears for the worst, however, and it soon happens!

With a clever and suspenseful script and a grand finale, The Grim Reaper is a real winner.  The acting too is excellent, with the four main players being exceptionally well cast.  Shatner is relatively subtle here, but he gets the chance for some extra emoting soon enough, and I think the Shat carries us right along with him every scary step of the way.

Scott Merrill, who was 42 years old at the time, really delivers as the actor getting a bit too old to play boyish-looking murderers who decides to cash in on a rich older woman. 

Merrill, a dancer originally who played Macheath (Mack the Knife) in the acclaimed and highly successful 1954-61 American revival of Kurt Weill's and Bertolt Brecht's The Threepenny Opera (co-starring with Lotte Lenya), surprisingly only had three television credits, and none on film.  His once-promising career oddly seems to have declined from this time onward. Could something in his private life have held back his television career?

Born in Baltimore on July 14, 1918, Wilfred Joseph Unger , to use Scott Merrill's real name, was the son of Wilfred Genouse Unger, an iron foundry moulder, and Caroline Rothmaier.  After his father's death his mother married John Rahll and with him ran a Baltimore cocktail bar.

near far right is the house where Wilfred Unger (aka Scott Merrill) lived with his
mother and stepfather, who ran a Baltimore cocktail bar

Enrolled by his mother in dancing school upon a doctor's recommendation after he was diagnosed with diabetes, Wilfred as an adult took up dancing professionally.  While performing in local clubs he landed his first role in Kurt Weill's Lady in the Dark, on tour in Baltimore.  It was then that he took his stage name Scott Merrill.  He danced in the musical when it reopened on Broadway in 1943. Dancing roles in Oklahoma!, Paint Your Wagon and Pal Joey, among others, followed.

Aside from Macheath in The Threepenny Opera, Merrill's most significant acting role on the stage was in Eugenia, adapted from Henry James' The Europeans, where he played Felix De Costa, brother of the title character, played by Tallulah Bankhead.

In the 1970s and 1980s Merrill and his life-partner, Edward Oscar Busse, directed an assisted living center in Bristol, CT, where Busse, a son of car factory machinist Frederick Busse and his wife Amelia Krampitz, grew up.  Merrill died in 2001 at the age of 82, the slightly younger Busse passing away four years later.  In a brief obituary of Merrill, the Hartford Courant referred to Busse as Merrill's "longtime friend," a classic euphemism, but the longer notice in the New York Times allowed that Busse had been Merrill's "companion."  The two men share a headstone in a Bristol cemetery.

Elizabeth Allen, done up here as a frosty blonde, has a great presence that reminds me of Hitchcock leading ladies from this time, particularly Kim Novak and Vera Miles.  She has a strong presence and really shines late in the episode with some most dramatic and convincing line readings.

But the show is stolen by Natalie Schafer, known for many decades now as daffy millionaire matron "Mrs. Howell" from Gilligan's Island, a staple of my childhood when it was in syndication (I must have seen every episode several times), but who actually had roles in some notable films, including Dishonored Lady, Secret Beyond the Door, The Snake Pit, Caught and Female on the Beach. Initially her Beatrice Graves seems mainly a wacky eccentric, like Martita Hunt's absolute oddball character, as we will see, in a Thriller episode in Season 2; but we come to see the pathos in her character. 

A television Queen of Crime
Ten years younger than Agatha Christie (making her 60 years old at the time of filming), Schafer really captures with complete conviction the personality of a mid-century Queen of Crime, with all her knowing and ironical trade talk.

My only regret is that she never got to do a mystery series, she might have given those Snoop Sisters a good challenge, if not Jessica Fletcher!

Well, there you have it, my top dozen Thrillers from the first season. A dozen more are to follow from Season 2. 

Stick around--if you dare!  For, as sure as my name is The Passing Tramp, there are some very good ones indeed remaining.

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Exit to Death: So Many Doors (1949), by E. R. Punshon

Crime detection at its exciting best!

This fascinating tapestry of murder and superior detection is a prime example of the classic type of mystery story--a story whose ingenious kinks and turns absorb you, while its intense scrutiny of clues will keep you agog with anticipation.

E. R. PUNSHON was inducted into the London Detection Club by the late G. K. Chesterton, then president.  This club was founded with the idea of bringing together mystery writers who were willing to aim at high literary standards, and who believed that in the mystery novel "the reader must always be given fair play...."

--From the front and back flaps of the American edition of E. R. Punshon's So Many Doors (Macmillan, 1950)

Does "intense scrutiny of clues" keep mystery readers "agog with anticipation" these days?  Did it in 1950?  Apparently someone at Macmillan thought so. Or, possibly, they were making for traditionalists the most that they could of Punshon's perceived strengths as a mystery writer in an era when, to generalize, male readers of crime fiction were turning increasingly to hard-boiled novels and women to so-called domestic suspense.

Yet to no avail: So Many Doors (to be reissued in January by Dean Street Press), would be the last Punshon novel published in the United States during the author's lifetime, though nine more new Punshons would be published in the UK by the author's longtime publisher, Victor Gollancz.

Taking note of the 17th-century stage origin of the title of So Many Doors, Anthony Boucher, then dean of American mystery critics, praised the "Elizabethan, even Jacobean" aspect of the novel in its compulsive chronicling of the "obscure destinies that drive [Punshon's] obsessed and tormented characters, and...the frightful violence that concludes the story." These were qualities that should have appealed to mid-century American readers, yet they may have been obscured by Punshon's deliberate narrative style for most of the novel.

For much of the novel Punshon's charming series sleuth, Bobby Owen--now, in his 26th novel appearance, ranked a Commander in Metropolitan Police (more on this below)--is trying to determine what happened to to Isabel Winlock, a respectable young woman who has run off with Mark Monk, a magnetic male of doubtful character who is suspected of having done in his wife.

Monk has a connection to Bexley House, a great Thameside mansion from "the days when domestic help was cheap and plentiful and and no one dreamed that it would one day very much be the reverse."  The once abandoned house seems to be the locale for gambling and black market activities, and there's evidence that someone--Mark Monk? Isabel Winlock?--was done in there, evidently stabbed, not long before Bobby pays Bexley House a visit.

Eventually Bobby's investigation of this most mysterious matter takes him to scenic Cornwall, specifically the old tin mining district around Redruth. What does he discover there? Read the novel and find out!

remains of tin mine works in Cornwall

Now, about Commanders on the Metropolitan Police.  Some people have commented that Bobby's rise in Scotland Yard seems meteoric.  Bobby was still a sergeant in 1939, when he left the Yard to join the police force in Wychshire, where he spent the war years as an inspector and later deputy chief constable.  Returning to London in Music Tells All and The House of Godwinsson (both 1948), Bobby is made a deputy assistant commissioner, the equivalent of deputy chief constable, but by So Many Doors he has become a Commander, reflecting the recent creation of the rank of commander out of junior DAC's.

For comparison, PD James' Adam Dalgliesh started off as an Inspector in Cover Her Face (1962), but had made it up to Commander by The Black Tower (1975). It took Bobby about fifteen years to make it up to deputy assistant commissioner (if you think this was too fast, blame Wychshire, not the Yard), but then he was a lot younger than Dalgliesh.

Or maybe not.  Bobby starts off the series at about age 23 and ages more or less naturally as the series progresses over the next 23 years, so at the end of his recorded career he's about the same age as Dalgliesh, who starts off in his forties, I believe, but never seems to age over the 46 years of cases chronicled by James. Good thing too, because had he aged naturally Dalgliesh would have been around 90 at the time of his last case!

More on the next Bobby Owen novel in the series, Everybody Always Tells, coming soon. If So Many Doors bears resemblance to Christie, Tells brings in bit of today's birthday boy, John Dickson Carr.

Monday, November 28, 2016

In with the New: Five Years of Blogging and A Plenitude of Punshons, A Lone Lingo and Murder in the Closet

It's been just over five years since my premier blog post on November 22, 2011, on the mystery genre's "passing tramp" and the once out-of-print mystery writer Jefferson Farjeon, creator of the series character Ben the Tramp.  I followed with another post on Farjeon on the 26th and then made this one on December 26, on a certain Farjeon novel called Mystery in White, which you may have heard of since.  There were other posts as well in those first few weeks, and there have been many since.  Indeed, this post will be the 700th post at The Passing Tramp.

Lately I haven't been posting here as much as I would have liked, but I have been busy working on proofs for the essay collection Murder in the Closet, which will be out the last day of this year, a long introduction to Ada E. Lingo's regional detective novel Murder in Texas (1935) and the last ten novels in E. R. Punshon's Bobby Owen mystery series, beginning with So Many Doors, which Dean Street Press will Release on January 2.

opening in January
For this last set of Punshon Bobby Owen mystery reissues there is bonus material: with the first four novels, selections from Punshon's crime fiction reviews; with the next five novels, a Bobby Owen short story apiece (there are five known Bobby Owen short stories); and with the last novel, a Punshon Bobby Owen radio play, rediscovered by the indefatigable Tony Medawar.  This brings to 41 Bobby's total cases.

For this last set of Punshons I wrote a 3300-word introduction, "Detective Stories, the Detection Club and Death: The Final Years of E. R. Punshon" and short pieces on the reviews, short stories and radio play.  There also a note by Tony Medawar on the radio play, "Death on the Up-Lift," giving more detail about Punshon's work in radio.

I've now written over 30,000 words, when all the Dean Street Press Punshon pieces are taken together, about Punshon, making him the seventh the pre-WW2 Detection Club member about whom I have written at such length, after Cecil John Charles Street, Freeman Wills Crofts, JJ Connington--see Masters of the "Humdrum" Mystery-- and Douglas and Margaret Cole and Henry Wade (See The Spectrum of English Murder).  I also got the chance to write about Ianthe Jerrold, another early DC member, for DSP's reissues of her crime novels.

Coming soon, some more on Ada Lingo and her Murder in Texas and on Murder in the Closet, my major book project for 2016, to which a lot of great people have contributed.  There will also be some more news on additional projects and, I hope, just some regular book reviews!  Thanks for sticking with the blog all these years, I appreciate the readership.

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Beware the Bushmaster! She Walks Alone (1948), by Helen McCloy

"Tony, did you ever hear of the Emperor Yao?"

"What on earth...?"

"He ruled China in its Golden Age.  There is a saying about the peacefulness of his reign. 'In the days of the Emperor Yao, a virgin with a bag of gold could walk alone from one end of the Empire to the other without fear of being molested.'  Since then, times have changed."

"Understatement," muttered Tony.

                                                                                               --She Walks Alone (1948)

She Walks Alone (1948) was the tenth crime novel American mystery author Helen McCloy (1904-1994) published over a productive first decade of crime writing.  Six detective novels featuring her series sleuth, psychiatrist Dr. Basil Willing, appeared between 1938 and 1943, but Willing's appearances in her novels would diminish relatively in the decades that followed.

Five Basil Willing novels were published between 1945 and 1956, along with five non-series novels. Over the rest of her writing career McCloy produced only two additional Basil Willing adventures in novel form, the beguiling Mr. Splitfoot (1968) and her final crime novel, Burn This (1980). Meanwhile during this comparative Willing drought she published ten non-series novels, beginning with the eerie The Slayer and the Slain (1957) and ending with The Smoking Mirror (1979).

In short, Helen McCloy's career as a crime writer reflects the wider movement within mystery fiction away from the pure, clue-puzzle detective novel toward the realistic and psychological crime novel. Strict detection (though with strong doses of psychological theorizing) predominated in McCloy's output in the late Thirties and early Forties, only to be gradually superseded by psychological suspense (what is often called "domestic suspense" today).

The Basil Willing novels The Goblin Market (1943) and The One That Got Away (1945) incorporate topical espionage elements, while the non-series Do Not Disturb (1943), reviewed by John Norris, is a flight-and-pursuit tale and the non-series Panic is a housebound girl in peril story. (Take a beautiful girl; isolate her in a remote cottage in the wooded Adirondacks; inject an ominous note of peril...and you have--PANIC, runs the jacket blurb). 

At the same time there is a pronounced intellectual aspect to Panic, in that a good deal of the novel is devoted to some quite complex code-breaking.  Anyone who hated that element in Dorothy L. Sayers' Have His Carcase probably will hate it in Panic as well.

the imperiled protagonist expresses
yearning for the days of Emperor Yao
She Walks Alone is something of a similar hybrid. Knowing the outline of the plot beforehand--a woman on a ship traveling the Caribbean finds herself entrusted with a packet of $100,000 that people prove quite willing to kill to obtain--I was expecting pure suspense.

Yet in reality the story is a quite complexly structured and plotted affair that reminded me of a detective novel without a strongly marked detective presence for much of its length. The first part of the novel comes in the form of a first-person narrated manuscript detailing recent events, while the second part switches to present time, as Captain Miguel Urizar, of the police force of the Caribbean island state of Puerto Vieja, appears on the scene. 

At the request of the ship captain, Urizar, whose viewpoint this section adopts, investigates a mysterious death on the ship. This marks a return engagement on his part five years after The Goblin Market, wherein he appeared with Basil Willing.

Then we go back to another manuscript portion (a different one this time), then to a finale in third person.  It may seem odd and overly structured as you are reading, but all is justified by the finale. You may figure out what is going on before the reveal a few pages before the end of the novel, but even so you should still admire the cleverness of it all.

Arguably McCloy over-intellectualizes the novel, going into lecture mode occasionally (McCloy seems quite obviously to have been a New Deal Democrat, progressive on both economic and social issues of her day that now more than ever seem not to have ever actually left us); and the novel is not as gripping as it could be, considering that we are presented with a "girl in peril" and that, as the splendid GP Micklewright jacket of the English edition reveals, one of the human victims on the ship is a beautiful women (not the girl in peril), bitten by a deadly bushmaster snake (just think what John Dickson Carr does with snakes in He Wouldn't Kill Patience). Still, I recommend this cleverly wrought piece of crime fiction.

See also Mike Grost on Helen McCloy's writing.

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Outer Genre Limits, Part One: Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956)

Science fiction was of course around before the explosion of sci-fi films in the 1950s.  Even Golden Age mystery writers, like J. J. Connington (himself a scientist) and J. Jefferson Farjeon wrote fine sci-fi novels.  Connington's Nordenholt's Million and Farjeon's Death of a World are both gripping apocalyptic thrillers.  Indeed, I think the two novels represent some of the best work in any genre by the two authors and I highly recommend them. (Nordenholt's Million has been reprinted by Dover in its "Doomsday Classics" series.)

I don't claim to be an expert on sci-fi cinema from the Fifties but much of it resembles other genres, such as mystery and horror.  Certainly when I think of horror, I think of all those creepy-crawly, big and scaly monster movies like Godzilla (we all know him), Them! (giant ants), Beginning of the End (giant grasshoppers) and Tarantula (duh).

Films like The Thing from Another World (1951) and Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) have "monsters" too in a manner of speaking.  The "pod people" in Body Snatchers are rather akin to zombies, ever so popular today, as we know, and tap into the primal fear many of us have had, in the Fifties and arguably more recently, of being forcibly submerged into a mindless, conformist mass.

Panic: Kevin McCarthy

Yet there's also a strong mystery element in both films. In Body Snatchers, Dr. Miles J. Bennell (Kevin McCarthy), lately returned from abroad to his small California town, encounters increasingly disturbing evidence that the townspeople are behaving strangely. Then his friends Jack and Theodora "Teddy" Belijec (King Donovan and Carolyn Jones) present him and his girlfriend, Becky Driscoll (Dana Wynter), with a human body, a very queer human body indeed, in their game room.

Later on this strange body disappears, just like in murder mysteries, and public authorities start spouting suspiciously pat explanations about the whole thing.  Heck, we might almost be in film noir territory here!  But then of course we veer into pure sci-fi.  Still, much of the early interest driving the film lies (akin to that in detective fiction) in its investigative element, as the doctor struggles valiantly to determine just what is taking place around him.

The body in the game room: Carolyn Jones and ????

During the 1950s the hegemony of the detective novel continued to fracture with the rise not just of sci-fi, but espionage, or spy, novels, noir and psychological (frequently domestic) suspense.  Indeed, publishers started indiscriminately to term what used to be called mystery or detection as "suspense" fiction.  This is not necessarily the most useful term in the world, as some have pointed out, because all storytelling would seem to be based on the question of suspense, i.e., what happens next.  But, still, the mystery form survived in within all of these genres, even if in mutated form, like that of the creatures so frequently found in sci-fi film.

Invasion of the Body Snatchers is much praised, and deservedly so, for its atmosphere of rising fear and paranoia, buoyed by a terrific performance from Kevin McCarthy. (Dana Wynter and Carolyn Jones are fine too, though a little too much shoehorned into "helpless female" roles characteristic of the era, especially Wynter).  The framing scenes forced on director Don Siegel have been criticized, probably with justification, but the penultimate scene with McCarthy is truly memorable. A great film, as is its 1978 remake.

Pursued by the mob, is resistance futile? Dana Wynter and Kevin McCarthy

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

More Than "A Slight Case of Murder" (1938 and 1999), Part One

How many mystery novel titles have been repeated over the decades?  Surely a great number of them.  Both "Murder is Easy" and "Easy to Kill," the British and American variant titles of a popular late Thirties standalone Agatha Christie mystery, had been used as titles before Christie came to them, for example.

"A Slight Case of Murder" is the title of both a late Thirties Edward G. Robinson country house murder farce and and a late Nineties black comedy starring William H. Macy.  Both are very good and happily available on DVD.

Edward G. Robinson's A Slight  Case of Murder (1938) is based on the 1935 play of the same title by Damon Runyon and Howard Lindsay.  Like the play, the film tells the story of New York gangster and bootlegger Remy Marco (Robinson), who decides to go "legit" as a brewer with the end of Prohibition and become a respectable businessman. 

Remy has an idea
Huber, Jenkins, Robinson
Unfortunately over the next few years Remy starts losing money hand over fist, because his beer (which he has never actually tasted) is really rather awful.  (People took what they could get during Prohibition.)  As the film proceeds, he's having to fend off bankers about to foreclose on his brewery, while keeping the news of his financial meltdown from his wife, Nora (Ruth Donnelly), and daughter Mary (Jane Bryan), who has just arrived back home from an outrageously expensive Paris finishing school. 

More trouble on the horizon: Unbeknownst to Remy, Mary is engaged to Dick Whitewood (Willard Parker), the scion of an old upper class family in Saratoga Springs, where Remy has taken a country house for the season.  Remy wants Mary to marry "up," so to speak, but the problem here is that Dick, at Mary's behest, has taken a job--as a state trooper.  Cops and their ilk are something that Remy simply can't abide.

Meanwhile, up at Saratoga Springs an armored truck full of bookie's money has been robbed by old cronies of Remy's and the gang of crooks has holed up with the boodle at Remy's house.  One of the crooks shoots the the others, leaving four dead bodies at Remy's place.  (He also keeps hanging around trying to get the money out of the house unobserved.)

Remy's little helpers
Huber, Jenkins, Brophy
So when Remy arrives to open the house party with his entourage, which also includes a trio of three gang underlings--Mike (Allen Jenkins), Lefty (Edward Brophy) and Guiseppe (Harold Huber)--and, as a philanthropy case, an egregiously wiseacre juvenile delinquent, Douglas Fairbanks Rosenbloom (Bobby Jordan, of Dead End Kids Fame), they find themselves presented with the classic crime film dilemma, so beloved by Alfred Hitchcock: what do we do with the bodies?

There's yet more complication, like when Dick Whitewood's snobbish "old money" father (Paul Harvey) shows up to scout out his prospective in-laws. You get the idea by now: it's going to be a most frantic country house party!

I quite enjoyed this movie.  Edward G. Robinson of course is one of the great contributors to the crime film genre, known, like James Cagney, for playing tough gangsters in films like Little Caesar and Key Largo, but like Cagney he actually had great range and was equally adept at comedies like A Slight Case of Murder and "straight" dramas as well, like Dr. Erlich's Magic Bullet, based on a real life man of medicine who courageously battled the scourge of syphilis.  He also played sympathetic characters in classic noirs like Scarlet Street and The Woman in the Window

Breaking some bad news to the wife
Donnelly and Robinson
Most of the supporting cast puts in masterful performances too.  I especially liked Ruth Donnelly as Remi's wife, who like Remy, is having trouble adjusting to the ways of respectable society, and Jenkins, Brophy and Huber as Remy's crook underlings, who, like Remy, are having trouble straightening themselves out, so to speak.  These three men were all great genre character actors who you will certainly recognize if you have watched many crime films from the period.

What with all those bullet-riddled bodies upstairs, A Slight Case of Murder is most definitely a crime film, but it's also a film most definitely played for laughs, like a French farce without the sex. (The movie's young lovers are exceedingly wholesome.)  But if you allow that murder can share the stage with mirth, you should like A Slight Case of Murder--and not just slightly.

Sunday, October 30, 2016

An Abbott and Costello Comedy Creeper Double Feature: Hold That Ghost (1941) and Who Done It? (1942)

Being a great fan of Universal classic horror films as a kid in the 1970s, one of my favorite films that was shown regularly on television back then was Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948), where the classic comedy duo of Bud Abbott and Lou Costello encountered, to their horror and our hilarity, the unholy trinity of Frankenstein's Monster, Dracula (played once again by Bela Lugosi) and the Wolf Man.

This comeback film for the two talented yuksters spurred a whole new series of Abbott and Costello films, wherein the pair "met," for example, the Killer, Boris Karloff (1949), the Invisible Man (1951), Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1953) and the Mummy (1955)  Some of these films incorporate mystery elements as well.

But Abbott and Costello's filmography goes back farther than that.  They first appeared together on film as a comedy team in One Night in the Tropics in 1940, stealing the show.  The next year they starred in the smash hit Buck Privates, which was followed over the next couple of years by In the Navy (1941), Hold That Ghost (1941), Keep 'Em Flying (1941), Ride 'Em Cowboy (1942), Rio Rita (1942), Pardon My Sarong (1942) and Who Done It? (1942).  Two of those titles will immediately suggest themselves to mystery fans: Hold That Ghost and Who Done It?

a dark and stormy matte painting

Hold That Ghost is an old dark house flick played for laughs, like Bob Hope's The Cat and the Canary (1939) and The Ghost Breakers (1940), films which set the gold standard for this sub-genre. In the film Abbott and Costello are gas station attendants who manage to inherit a deceased gangster's old Twenties-era roadhouse. (Don't ask me to explain how this comes about here, but the gangster's will reading scene is amusing.)

They go out there, one dark and stormy night, and it turns out that the moribund roadhouse is quite the old dark house.  Let me add in passing here that these early Abbott and Costello flicks really had great set designs: the old dark house in this film is a splendid one indeed, riddled with secret passages and hidden rooms, and it's just all-round cobwebby creepy.

Don't they know to stay out of the cellar? Bud Abbott, Lou Costello, Richard Carlson

Other people end up at the defunct roadhouse as well: pencil-thin mustached gangster Charlie Smith (Marc Lawrence), obviously up to no good; a beautiful blonde, Norma Lind (Universal's "Scream Queen" Evelyn Ankers); handsome, bespectacled Dr. Jackson (Richard Carlson), who seemingly has eyes more for water microbes than for lovely Norma Lind; and wacky radio mystery star Camilla Brewster (Joan Davis).

Another thing I have to interject here is what a good supporting cast this is!  Abbott and Costello films followed a pattern, common for the day, of having a romantic subplot run parallel with the zany doings of our boys.  Often in these situations the male and female lovers are bland and boring, making their passages d'amore a chore to watch, but here the dependable Evelyn Ankers and Richard Carlson are a charming pair.

Carlson in fact had appeared in The Ghost Beakers the year before and in 1941 he was in the acclaimed film The Little Foxes as well.  He's best known for King Solomon's Mines, I think, as well as the sci-fi/horror films he did in the 1950s, such as The Magnetic Monster, It Came from Outer Space, The Maze, Riders to the Stars and Creature from the Black Lagoon (another absolute favorite of mine as a kid).  He was also in The Spiritualist/The Amazing Mr. X (1948), a fine little film that I reviewed here.

And fangs!  Like this!!
Bud Abbott, Joan David, Richard Carlson (Evelyn Ankers peeking out from the shadows)

Then there's Joan Davis--best known today, I believe for the Fifties television series I Married Joan--who is superb as the comic female in the film.  She adds a lot from the humor standpoint, including a memorable waltz-rumba dance scene with Lou Costello.

And let's not forget Marc Lawrence, whose credited film career spanned seventy years, from White Woman (1933), not at all a bad thriller with Charles Laughton and Carole Lombard (reviewed by me here) to The Shipping News (2001) and Looney Tunes: Back in Action (2003)  Lawrence appeared in countless crime shows on the big and small screens over the decades, often playing gangsters.  He had good roles in such classic films as This Gun for Hire, Key Largo and The Asphalt Jungle.

Hail, Hail, the gang's all here (and a certain person is totally stressed out again)
Bud Abbott, Lou Costello, Evelyn Ankers, Joan Davis, Richard Carlson

I should also mention Shemp Howard, who has one nice scene in a drugstore, and Mischa Auer, who appears in book ending nightclub scenes, which also include numbers by the Andrew Sisters and Ted Lewis, performing his theme song, "Me and My Shadow" (a performance that you would not see today).

In only their third of many starring outings, Abbott and Costello are in top form here, Abbott bossy and bullying (at times he comes off like a snarling Dan Duryea) and Costello the not-too-bright man-child, who gets very stressed out indeed in trying situations.

He has one of his classic bits here, involving a pair of candlesticks.  I also love the discussion he, Abbott and Joan Davis have about "figures of speech," it's a hoot.  I know some people consider Abbott and Costello's humor unpardonably low, but I admire the gusto Costello put into his best performances.  In his own way I think he was a comedy genius.

Hold that Ghost is, I think quite a bit better than Who Done It? Abbott and Costello don't seem as funny here, and the supporting cast, which includes some fine players, like Thomas Gomez (the murder victim), William Bendix (dumb cop) and Mary Wickes (gal Friday, essentially the Joan Davis role from Ghost), don't have as good material either.

Patric Knowles
and Louise Allbritton carry the romantic subplot here and while they are perfectly competent and pretty to look at, they come off as rather aloof and superior and don't have the sparks that the more naturalistic Ankers and Carlson do in Ghost.

The great Thomas Gomez is murdered after one scene, and so is wasted.  The mystery plot might not have been bad, but here, unlike in Ghost, Abbott and Costello's frantic antics work decidedly against it.

Still, there are some good bits, including a great finale (I can see the influence on the 1994 film Radioland Murders, reviewed here), and there's a wonderful evocation of a radio mystery series, Murder at Midnight, in a couple of scenes. I don't know who played the radio announcer, but he did a fine job in this part. 

"Murder! At Midnight"
....(cue woman's scream)