Review of “The Thing that Couldn’t Die” (1958)

from YouTube

This was our Saturday bad movie and pizza offering. The pizza was good, and the pinot noir helped. However, before the credits ran, the dearly beloved and I were discussing several different—and better—endings to the movie. We watched it with Svengoolie.

Plot:

On her California ranch, Flavia McIntyre (Peggy Converse) has her niece, Jessica Burns, (Carolyn Kearney) dowsing for water for a new well. Jessica uses a long stick that looks like a peace sign. She has always had a gift for finding things in addition to water. As she’s dowsing, three visitors on horseback stop by: Gordon Hawthorne (William Reynolds), Linda Madison (Andra Martin), and Hank Huston (Jeffrey Stone). Hank is an artist engaged to Linda. They poke fun at Jessica, annoying her.

She makes face at them and finds a spot near an old tree, indicated by her gift. Ranch hands Boyd Abercrombie (James Anderson) and Mike (Charles Horvath) move in to start digging.

Jessica suddenly changes her mind and tells them to stop. “There’s something down evil there.”

“Maybe it’s gold,” helpful Hank says, “the root of all evil.”

Hoping to find water—or now gold—Flavia tells the men to keep digging.

Jessica screams, “You’re all horrible! I hope you all die! I hope a tree falls on you!” and turns to run off. When she does, a sizable tree limb falls on Linda. Thankfully, she isn’t injured—more frightened than hurt, she says later.

Horrified, Jessica feels responsible and apologizes to Linda.

The men dig past nightfall, making a hole with nice, square edges. They find no water, but Mike’s shovel strikes something. Boyd yells at him, “Stop digging, you fool!”

It appears to be a centuries-old box. Aunt Flavia is sure it contains gold. Gordon reads a warning against opening it and the date: 1579. That means the box must somehow be connected to Sir Francis Drake (…yeah. It could happen…) as he was only Englishman to visit California at that time. The box itself would fetch a fortune from a museum, provided it’s not damaged. He offers to go to Sacramento to get the head of the Historical Society.

This annoys Flavia, but she agrees, locking the box in a room and locking the key in her purse, which she lays on her nightstand. She also posts Mike as a guard outside the locked room. Mike is a large man and tough as an ox, but strategic thinking is not his strong suit. He could, for instance, easily be led astray by creepy Boyd or by a sixteenth-century devil worshipper (Robin Hughes) who puts his whammy on ordinary folk with his evil eyes. Back in the day, his comrades got so fed with him and his devil-worshipping ways, they decapitated him and buried his head in a box apart from his body and then cursed him (somehow…) with the inability to die.

What could go wrong on the McIntyre Ranch?

Thoughts:

The viewer sympathizes with Jessica. Yes, she looks goofy, carrying a stick around the chaparral looking for water. At the same time, Gordon, Hank, and Linda don’t have to be mean about it. After all, Jessica is only trying to help her Aunt Flavia.

When she screams about a tree falling on people, it’s easy to chalk it up to teenage drama, but after it happens, you have to wonder if there might be something more going on. The three guests challenge Jessica. Linda’s watch has been missing. Jessica tells them it isn’t missing but was stolen. The thief isn’t human. They’ll find it in a trade rat nest in a tree near Linda’s cabin. And thar it be. Might want to clean it before you put it on your wrist. Rat droppings. YUCK.

One by one, the residents of the ranch fall under the spell of the head. Under the influence, Linda becomes mean and blows off her fiancé. Jessica becomes slutty and shows cleavage.

It’s not entirely clear what the head’s goal is, beyond using Jessica and her ability to find things to locate his body and become whole again. …And then? Finally find a cure for scurvy? Conquer the world or something?

California history is not my area of expertise, but maybe I missed something. Did Francis Drake have a super-wizard with him when he stopped for repairs near where San Francisco would be founded? One who could curse miscreants with undeath? Maybe it’s something they don’t discuss in school. I mean, otherwise, this plot point makes no sense.

The ending was far too facile, in my seldom humble opinion. One minute, the world (or something?) looked doomed, and the next, everything was bright and joyous again, with “The End” floating over the scene.

While the idea of a water dowser finding an ancient buried evil is an intriguing premise, and there were characters I cared about, this movie ultimately just didn’t work for me.






Title: The Thing that Couldn’t Die (1958)
Directed by
Will Cowan

Writing Credits
David Duncan…       (written by)
David Duncan…(story “The Water Witch”) (uncredited)

Cast (in credits order)
William Reynolds…Gordon Hawthorne
Andra Martin…Linda Madison
Jeffrey Stone…Hank Huston
Carolyn Kearney…Jessica Burns
Peggy Converse…Flavia McIntyre

Released: 1959
Length: 1 hour, 9 minutes

Review of “The Invisible Man Returns” (1940)

trailer from YouTube

This is this week’s Saturday pizza and bad movie offering. The leading man spent most of his time invisible and in the buff. We tried a new wine last night, something called Lirac. It was nice, but definitely a one-glass wine. We watched it with Svengoolie.

Plot:

The friends, family, and staff of Geoffrey Radcliffe (Vincent Price), a coal mine owner, await news of a last-minute reprieve, hoping he will be spared execution. They believe he was wrongly convicted of the murder of his brother, Michael. Geoffrey’s cousin, Richard Cobb (Cedric Hardwicke), tries to call in a favor from the Home Secretary.

While he’s calling, Geoffrey’s good friend whispers to Geoffrey’s fiancée, Helen Manson (Nan Grey), “If it’s a ‘no, be brave. You know what has to be done.” As it turns out, the person Richard is trying to talk to is away in Scotland (where apparently there are no phones) and can’t be reached.

The governor has granted a last visit to Doctor Griffin. Soon after he leaves, the guards raise a cry. Sir Geoffrey is missing. All that’s left is a pile of his clothes on the floor. In the meantime, Helen Manson has gone missing.

Enter Sampson of Scotland Yard (Cecil Kellaway), who realizes that Frank Griffin’s brother was Jack Griffin, the invisible man, who went insane, killed several people and was in turn killed by the police. He visits Frank in his laboratory.

“But, of course, Doctor,” he tells Griffin, “you would never make a man invisible… with the danger of him going mad unless you had a means of bringing him back in time. Surely, in all those nine years, you’ve found a method of avoiding insanity…or perhaps even restoring visibility.”

He hasn’t. While Helen and Geoffrey are holed up at an out-of-the-way inn, he’s working feverishly on an antidote. One turns invisible guinea pigs visible again, but it also kills them—bummer for the guinea pigs. And bummer for Geoffrey!

Thoughts:

On the one hand, this was disappointing. I knew almost immediately who the real killer was.

On the other, this was a glorious ham-fest. Everyone overacted, with the possible exceptions of the guinea pigs and the watchdog.

In the beginning, Geoffrey shows concern and affection for Helen. He was in love with her. When they meet, his face is wrapped in bandages. “I’m not much to look at anyway,” he tells her.

Later, understanding that he might go insane under the influence of the invisibility drug, he tells Frank to chain him up before he can do any harm.

Not only does he want to forego hanging—a reasonable enough desire—he also wants to find out who really killed his brother. A few oddball things start slipping out; he can’t bear the sound of the barking dog. The audience watches as he torments a man he believes has received a promotion at the mining operation he was unworthy of. Still, there was some silly (as opposed to sadistic) humor in this scene. He finally goes full-blown Pinky and the Brain rearrange-the-world bat-guano nuts.

To find out if the old night watchman at the mine, Willie Spears (Alan Napier), knows more than he should about his brother’s death, Geoffrey messes with his car—while it’s in motion. Dangerous to any living critter, of course. Spears gets out and inspects the distributor and spark plug assembly—all in places where no distributor or spark plugs ought to be. Nevertheless, whatever he attaches, Geoffrey unplugs. Spears runs into the woods, with Geoffrey after him, telling him he’s a ghost.

Geoffrey sneezes and helps himself to Spears’ handkerchief. He is, after all, running around in his birthday suit.

“Can a ghost sneeze?” the abused Spears asks.

“It’s cold in the other world,” Geoffrey tells him in a sepulchral voice.

The special effects would not wow a 2021 audience, but they were pretty cool for the time. One shot looked into blank eyes after Geoffrey took his sunglasses off. Another showed him leaning back in a chair on the phone—extra points for humor.

Aside from a really young Vincent Price, a couple of familiar faces showed up. In the first scene, when Sir Geoffrey’s fate seems sealed, the cook, “Cookie,” says the two Radcliffe brothers were close. This is Mary Gordon, moonlighting from her job and Sherlock Holmes’ and Dr. Watson’s landlady, Mrs. Hudson. Another familiar face is Alan Napier, who plays the part of the abused and confused Willie Spears. Not to worry, Willie. A more peaceful job it on the way as Bruce Wayne’s butler.

So, this was fun in the overacting department, occasionally cute, special effects departments. Alas! It wasn’t much of a murder mystery, however.




Title: The Invisible Man Returns (1940)

Directed by
Joe May

Writing Credits
H.G. Wells…(characters)
Joe May…(story) and
Curt Siodmak…(story) (as Kurt Siodmak)
Lester Cole…(screenplay) &
Curt Siodmak…(screenplay) (as Kurt Siodmak)
Cedric Belfrage…(additional writer) (uncredited)

Cast (in credits order) verified
Cedric Hardwicke…Richard Cobb (as Sir Cedric Hardwicke)
Vincent Price…Geoffrey Radcliffe
Nan Grey…Helen Manson
John Sutton…Doctor Frank Griffin
Cecil Kellaway…Sampson

Released: January 12, 1940

Length: 1 hour, 21 minutes

Review of “Charlie Chan in Egypt” (1935)

The drone shots are not from the movie, but this is as close as I could come.

Our Saturday pizza and bad movie night was something a little different. We chose a silly Charlie Chan movie, Charlie Chan in Egypt.

Plot:


In the opening scene, men dressed as stereotypical archaeologists pry a plaque inscribed with hieroglyphics off a stone wall inside some undefined underground space. Professor Arnold (George Irving) digs through the wall behind the plaque, removing large bricks with the help of a man dressed in Egyptian robes. The man in Egyptian robes gazes into the hole only to begin choking as if someone were strangling him. He falls over dead. A camera pans over a hidden room full of treasure. Has some vengeful god exacted a terrible price for the desecration of a beloved pharaoh’s tomb?

…Probably not.

The viewer next sees Charlie Chan (Warner Oland) flying in an open cockpit prop plane, hanging onto his black bowler hat. This is cut between stock aerial footage of the Giza pyramids and the Sphinx. The French Archaeological Society has sent him to investigate Professor Arnold’s excavation of Ameti’s tomb after some irregularities have come to light. According to an agreement with the Arnold expedition and the Society, artifacts from the tomb should go to the Society’s museums. However, they’ve been showing up in other museums. Could the professor be selling to the highest bidder? Could someone be stealing from under his nose? Or could there be something even more sinister afoot?

Chan meets an array of expedition members: Professor Arnold’s partner, Professor Thurston (Frank Conroy); Arnold’s assistant, Tom Evans (Thomas Beck); and Arnold’s daughter, Carol (Pat Paterson), who is dating Tom Evans. They tell him the professor has been missing. Carol is distraught with worry about her father. She believes Sekmet, the goddess of vengeance, is pursuing her and has severely injured her brother, Barry (James Eagles).

Tom does what any concerned man would do for his woman. He calls for the doctor to give her a sleeping drug.

Meanwhile, Thurston and Tom take Chan on a tour of their laboratory, the most advanced in Luxor. It even has an x-ray machine, which eventually shows the 3000-year-old mummy of Ameti has a bullet in its chest. Those ancient Egyptians were pretty advanced.

Thoughts:

In the scene in the lab, Chan has some of the best lines. On examining the supposedly unopened sarcophagus, Chan notes, “Varnish on 3000-year-old mummy case not completely dry.”

Thurston shows Chan the statue of Sekmet they’ve recovered from the tomb. “The ancients endowed her with many supernatural powers, Mr. Chan.”

“Cannot believe piece of carved stone contain evil,” Chan responds. “Unless dropped on foot.”

This is the charm of the Charlie Chan movies. Chan tweaks the noses of those around him while remaining infinitely polite. The downside is the racial stereotyping and the silly “ancient saying” spouted at every turn.

Asians are not the only people who are stereotyped. Black Americans are seen as lazy, foolish, and suitable for nothing more than servant roles. They are superstitious and frighten easily, like children. This was a common portrayal in the 1930s, so the Charlie Chan movies do not stand out in that regard.

The character of Snowshoes (why that name? Snowshoes in the desert? He’s out of place?) is played by Stepin Fetchit, the stage name of Lincoln Theodore Monroe Andrew Perry (1902-1985). Stepin Fetchit billed himself as “the laziest man alive.” In this movie, he spends his time whining, complaining about having to do anything, and is afraid of the dark. When he’s first introduced, he’s on the verge of being scammed by a conman who promised to show him the tomb of his Egyptian ancestors—for a price. Snowshoes ain’t too bright.

Personally, I found the character annoying. I’d rather listen to a cricket in the room.

While the mystery itself was not exactly one to keep you guessing, this was fun. The viewer has the hysterical woman (is someone playing with her head, or is she just a silly woman?), the solicitous boyfriend (does he really care for the feeble-minded creature, or is there something else he’s got his eye on?), the reassuring partner (wasn’t he just a little too quick to answer when Charlie asked him about those diverted artifacts?), and the distraught disabled brother (what did he really see?) all to contend with.

A female servant named Nayda who sulks around the house, apparently spying on the Arnolds (could she be lacing Miss Arnold’s tea…?) is a very young Rita Hayworth, billed as Rita Cansino.

This is a silly movie. I liked it, even if it seems to show that Asian people are somehow incapable of using articles or plurals, and that’s somehow funny. The men who played Charlie Chan were not even Asian, but Caucasian. Warner Oland, the Chan of this movie, was Swedish-American. Yet it’s hard not to laugh when he ever so humbly tweaks the noses of those around him.

“Kind thoughts add favorable weight in balance of life and death.” Whatever that means.



Title: Charlie Chan in Egypt (1935)

Directed by
Louis King…(as Luis King)

Writing Credits
Robert Ellis…(original screenplay) and
Helen Logan…(original screenplay)
Earl Derr Biggers…(based on: the character “Charlie Chan” created by)

Cast (in credits order) awaiting verification
Warner Oland…Charlie Chan
Pat Paterson…Carol Arnold
Thomas Beck…Tom Evans
Rita Hayworth…Nayda (as Rita Cansino)
Stepin Fetchit…Snowshoes

Released: June 21, 1935
Length: 1 hour, 13 mins

Review of “The Woman in White” by Wilkie Collins

image from goodreads

Plot:

On his way to London before taking a job referred to him by an excitable Italian acquaintance, Walter Hartright comes across a distraught woman dressed all in white, late at night on a lonely road. Hartright sees she’s agitated and walks with her to where she can get a cab to her friend’s house. They don’t introduce themselves. Farther down the road, he overhears police asking about the woman he helped. They’re concerned because she escaped from an insane asylum. He debates with himself whether he did the right thing but continues to his lodgings in London and later to his job in Limmeridge House in Cumberland as a drawing teacher to one Laura Fairlie and her half-sister, Marian Halcombe.

The house is owned by wealthy, whiny, hypochondriac Frederick Fairlie, the brother of Laura’s deceased father. Laura is beautiful and wealthy. Walter is struck by a resemblance she bears to the woman in white. Marian is intelligent and full of moxie. She’s also ugly and poor, therefore destined to be an old maid.

Laura and Walter fall in love, though they never express it. Walter is mindful of their relative standings in society. Marian catches on—she is the bright one, after all—and tells Walter to leave for both Laura’s sake and his own. Laura is engaged to be married. Yeah, he’s an old geezer, but he’s also a baronet. Laura made a deathbed promise to her father, and she’s going to keep it. No reason for her father wanting that promise is ever given. Before she marries, she receives an anonymous letter warning her about her affianced, Sir Percy Glyde.

Walter leaves, though he stays in touch with Marian until he takes a punishing job in Honduras. Laura marries and goes abroad with Sir Percy to Italy, where they meet up with her estranged aunt, the sister of her father and Frederick Fairlie. She’s married to an Italian, Count Fosco. Laura looks forward to the wedding trip, not only for sightseeing but as means of family reconciliation.

Thoughts:

Oh, the trials and tribulations that lie ahead for Walter and Laura! More than once, all hope seems lost. When Walter met the unfortunate woman in white, he little imagined uncovering secrets of false and hidden identities, violent nationalist Italian secret societies, or witnessing those he loves being deceived, drugged, and hidden away, never mind fortunes and lives lost. He employs many of the methods later literary detectives would use to solve mysteries: interviewing often reluctant witnesses and searching through old documents to build a legal case. Before he leaves for Central America, he believes he’s being followed. Marian thinks he’s being silly.

The novel is long. Most print editions run about seven hundred pages. The narration switches between different voices, almost, at times, as if the characters are giving testimony in court. Some sections are diary excerpts.

Just the same, the story is not difficult to follow, in part because author Collins has given each character a unique voice. The reader gets multiple views. This device enhances certain aspects of the story. For example, Count Fosco, an enormously fat man, presents himself as courteous and as a great admirer of Miss Halcombe. He understands her intelligence. However, the Count is also ruthless. Both he and Sir Percy have returned from abroad in dire financial straits (“embarrassed” in the term of the time) and are desperate to access Laura’s considerable fortune. The reader is aware of this, but the housekeeper at Sir Percy’s estate, Mrs. Michelson, sees only the gentleman in Fosco. Her statement painting him only as the most attentive and caring Christian man adds to the creepiness of the story.

There are twists and turns that Walter takes most of the book uncovering: secret illegitimate children, switched identities, intercepted letters, and drugged tea.

This is often regarded as Collins’ best novel and the first “sensation” novel. It centers on the idea that at the time (c. 1860), women gave up nearly all property rights when they married.

The “sensation” novel, a creature of the nineteenth century, drew on gothic and melodramatic traditions and often involved crime. Long-held secrets are revealed. One favorite trespass in such works is bigamy, intentional or not, though this does not occur in this book. Sorry to disappoint. Some were based on a true crime. According to Wikipedia, The Woman in White was probably based, at least in part, on the case of one Louisa Nottidge, whose family feared she’d come under the undue influence of a religious zealot and had her locked in an asylum. As did the woman in white, she escaped.

Although a cry for protecting the property rights of women, it is, paradoxically, deeply misogynistic. A woman’s worth is determined not by her capability or intelligence but by her desirability as a sexual partner. One aspect of desirability is passivity. Laura is pretty but generally useless and has to be taken care of by Walter and Marian. On the other hand, Marian is intelligent and unafraid, but she’s ugly. Her job is to help Walter take care of Laura. Perish the thought she should ever think of finding a life of her own. Otherwise, Marian would be… scary.

Having said that, I have to add that along with its faults, this book is quite engaging. The reader cares about the characters, wants to see the protagonists prosper and the bad guys get theirs in the end. While not wishing to excuse the misogyny or the ethnic stereotyping concerning Italians in particular, I have to say these are part of the times. Expecting a nineteenth-century establishment figure to understand current sensibilities is unrealistic.

The book has also been adapted for theater and movies several times. It makes for a good—if long and involved—tale. It’s a good quarantine read. Get off Netflix for a bit, brew some tea, and curl up with a cozy blanket. It may be a while.

Bio:

William Wilkie Collins was a good friend of Charles Dickens. He is not best known for his novels The Moonstone and The Woman in White. He also wrote more than thirty books, a hundred articles, short stories and essays, and at least a dozen plays.

He wanted nothing to do with marriage but set up housekeeping with two different women simultaneously for many years.





Title: The Woman in White
Author: Wilkie Collins (1824-1889)
First published: first appeared in serial form 1859-1860 All Year Round in the UK and Harper’s Weekly in the US. It was published in book form in 1860

Review of “The Black Scorpion” (1957)

trailer from YouTube

I had never heard of The Black Scorpion before we watched it for our Saturday pizza and bad movie night. It promised to be a winner, and it did not disappoint. The chardonnay wasn’t half bad either.

Plot:

The movie opens with shots of a volcano erupting and demolished buildings. Locals kneel in prayer, not to the volcano—that would be silly—but in hopes God will spare them any more heartbreak and loss.

God has a strange sense of humor.

The voice-over describes the explosion (in part):  

To the benighted citizenry of this remote countryside, the most alarming aspect of the phenomenon is the fact that its unabated hourly growth is without precedence, having reached a towering height of nine thousand feet within a few days. And with each added foot, it spreads its evil onslaught into a wider circumference. But what is now most feared is that rescue work will be severely hampered by the hazardous inaccessibility of the terrain.

The viewer next sees a Jeep pulling a trailer across a blasted landscape. In it are American geologist Hank Scott (Richard Denning) and Mexican-American geologist Arturo Ramos (Carlos Rivas), on their way to the remote village of San Lorenzo to study the volcano. From a man atop a telephone pole, they learn a police car has driven ahead of them but not returned. They come across a ruined farmhouse and a squad car that looks like a wrecking ball whopped it. After some searching, they come across a baby, who appears unhurt, and a dead policeman. They take the baby with them.

In San Lorenzo, they find people have abandoned the countryside amid rumors of a “demon bull.” A woman recognizes the baby. She says his parents are dead and takes him. The local priest, Father Delgado (Pedro Galván), discounts these rumors but notes a demon bull has been a symbol of evil since ancient times. Despite the requisite warnings from the authorities, the two geologists depart to study the volcano. They find shapely ranch owner, Teresa Alvarez (Mara Corday), after she falls off her horse and appears to need rescue. They also bring back a piece of obsidian roughly the size of a pizza box with a scorpion trapped inside. (Not a geologist, but I don’t recall obsidian being translucent.)

Later, when Ramos splits the obsidian, they find the scorpion is alive but manageable. Into a jar it goes. Kinda like a volcano splitting a mountainside and releasing scorpions the size of city buses—or jets.

Thoughts:

The overwrought voice-over at the beginning bewailing the fate of the “benighted citizenry,” as well as several news broadcasts and police dispatches, were voiced by Bob Johnson, who would later leave reel-to-reel self-destructing messages for Jim Phelps (Peter Graves) on Mission Impossible.

I found it amusing and refreshing that the heroes of the movie were geologists. They later risk their lives descending into a cave with poison gas meant to rid the world of the giant scorpions. They find the caves more extensive than they had thought and spend time exploring them. There they uncover the secret of killing the monsters, thus far proven impervious to gunfire and even tank fire. (“Trust me, I’m a geologist”?)

Just the same, they don’t work on their own. They get information from a specialist in Mexico City, who first identifies the type of venom they’re dealing with.

Some things make no sense. A man on horseback riding along a ledge finds the opening believed to be the place the giant scorpions emerge from. The edge gives way. Both he and his horse tumble down. (Were either hurt in real life? I don’t know.) Because this is where Hank and Arturo plan to descend in a cage, they call for heavy equipment to be brought up—onto a ledge that gave way under a horse. I’m neither a geologist nor an engineer, but perhaps spending some time stabilizing the area first wouldn’t be a bad investment, ya know?

Once they’re in the cave, it was fun to watch the different critters roam around. The viewer watches a gruesome battle or two and gets to see our heroes dash around underground for a bit. Yeah, okay, the stop-motion is hokey, but demanding realism for giant scorpions released from underground by an earthquake is a tall order. This is just… fun.

At one point, a swarm of scorpions derails a train, and hundreds of people are killed. It’s a little hard to catch, but the words “Lionel Lines” appear on the train’s coal tender. Fights break out among the scorpions. A great-granddaddy prevails, and for no discernable reason, heads toward Mexico City. Big city, bright lights? ¿Quién sabe?

The movie is a little slow initially and uses the de rigueur love interest and annoying kid, Juanito (Mario Navarro)—think Short Round in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. Additionally, more than one crowd of people ran from a shadow of a giant black scorpion. The final indignity is the scorpion’s face, which my dearly beloved compared it to the baby on the old Dinosaurs sitcom. The scorpion had the added enhancement of drool running continuously between its jaws. Its eyes rolled, but its head was stationary. Yeah, I was shaking in my boots.

I imagine (but I don’t know) there were budget restraints on the movie. I would not call it great art, but I enjoyed it. I can see it being a great drive-in flick back in the day as well—when drive-in movies were a summer thing.





Title: The Black Scorpion (1957)

Directed by
Edward Ludwig

Writing Credits
David Duncan…(screenplay) and
Robert Blees…(screenplay)
Paul Yawitz…(story)

Cast (in credits order) verified
Richard Denning…Hank Scott
Mara Corday…Teresa Alvarez
Carlos Rivas…Artur Ramos
Mario Navarro…Juanito
Carlos Múzquiz…Dr. Velazco (as Carlos Muzquiz)

Released: October 11, 1957
Length: 1 hour, 28 minutes

Review of “Black Angel” (1946)

trailer from YouTube

This week’s Saturday pizza and bad movie night was a little different. Svengoolie was a re-run, and I was in a noir-ish mood. We tried a movie I’d never heard of before, Black Angel from 1946.

Plot:

Inside a richly-appointed Los Angeles apartment, famous singer Mavis Marlowe (Constance Dowling) nags her maid (an uncredited Mary Field). (“Why don’t you keep my things where I can find them?”) The buzzer rings. While the maid answers the door, Mavis digs out a handgun from her draw full of monogrammed linen.

A delivery boy has a heart-shaped broach, a lovely piece. The maid is on her way out to see a movie. Unfortunately, she puts on the wrong record, one that sends Mavis into a tizzy. As the maid leaves, Mavis calls downstairs to the doorman* (an uncredited Dick Wessel) and says that if Mr. Blair comes there tonight, she does not wish to see him then or ever.

A man (Dan Duryea), who was earlier leaning against the building, now comes in, asking to see Miss Marlowe. The doorman bars him, telling him Miss Marlowe has refused to see him. Blair protests, nearly striking the doorman when he blocks his entry to the elevator. He’s her (ex-) husband, and that night is their anniversary.

“Sorry, Mr. Blair,” the doorman says.

To add insult to injury, on his way out, Blair sees another man (Peter Lorre) ask the same doorman to let him see Miss Marlow and be told to go on in. “She’s expecting you.” Bitterly disappointed, Blair then goes to the bar where he has a job playing piano and gets blind drunk. His buddy Joe (Wallace Ford) drags him back to his hotel room and locks him in, bolting the door from the outside.

Back at Mavis’ apartment, a man (John Phillips) pushes her door open. No one seems to be home, but the music she hated is playing. He hears a noise from her bedroom, enters, and finds her dead, strangled with her own monogrammed scarf. He sees the heart-shaped broach, sees the gun. The jewel disappears. One thing leads to another, and he’s the one the maid sees fleeing the scene. The maid knows him: Kirk Bennett, who’s been sleeping with Mavis, and, as it turns out, was being blackmailed by her.

He is tried and convicted of her murder. However, his wife, Catherine (June Vincent), is convinced of his innocence and seeks Martin Blair’s help. Blair is at first reluctant but then sobers up. The two find nightclub owner Marko (Peter Lorre) and get hired as performers (… it could happen).

The best-laid plans and all that.

Thoughts:

The opening scenes of the movie are carefully plotted out. Mavis is portrayed as a bitch, so the audience will not mourn when she is killed. Plus, she’s a blackmailer. Naughty girl! However, there’s more going on here that makes more sense in the end. Why does she go for a gun when the doorbell rings? Why does the gift of the broach prompt a call to the doorman?

It’s a perfect movie plot device that they should fall in love when Blair and Catherine work together. Blair falls for her. He’s given up drinking. He’s writing music for her—just as he did for Mavis—but Catherine is in love with her husband. This sends Blair out drinking again.

The driving force behind the action is Catherine Bennett’s drive to exonerate her husband. She knows he was unfaithful, but she loves him. She doesn’t want to see him die, and she will do everything in her power to set him free.

The title is better suited to the novel the movie is drawn from than to the movie itself. The harm that Catherine causes is not out of malice or an attempt at vengeance but out of ignorance. She is not heartless, but she is certain.

To be fair, the movie presents one person as looking guilty to the audience. The audience is with Bennett when he discovers Mavis’s body, when he hears noises in her bedroom, when he first sees then doesn’t see the heart-shaped broach. The audience sees what the police don’t. This builds sympathy with Catherine, the wronged wife who is doing all she can to prove what the audience knows to be true. Additionally, the audience roots for Blair, who had given up the bottle to help her. Yeah, she’s married, but can you blame him if he falls for her…?

The end, as improbable and unconvincing as I found it, throws new light on many things. Acts and gestures take on new meanings—this works. Nevertheless, I couldn’t buy the solution it offered.

As for a recommendation, there are definitely parts of it that are engaging. The opening scenes are worth a second look after you’ve seen the ending to understand how nuanced every aspect is. Peter Lorre’s performance reflects just the right amount of menace, thuggery, and devastation. Plus, there’s a certain amount of satisfaction in realizing he and not Bogart is the club owner this time. But the unsatisfying ending overshadows a lot of this for me.



*Kids, ask your grandparents what a doorman is.

Title: Black Angel 1946

Directed by
Roy William Neill

Writing Credits
Roy Chanslor…(screenplay)
Cornell Woolrich…(based on novel by)

Cast (in credits order) verified
Dan Duryea…Martin Blair
June Vincent…Catherine Bennett
Peter Lorre…Marko
Broderick Crawford…Police Captain Flood
Constance Dowling…Mavis Marlowe

Released: August 2, 1946
Length:  1 hour, 21 mins.

Review of “The Man Who Knew Too Much” by G. K. Chesterton

from Goodreads

I am the man who knows too much to know anything, or, at any rate, to do anything.

Other than its title, this book bears no resemblance to the Hitchcock films of the same name.

This is a collection of eight mystery/detective short stories that feature well-connected Horne Fisher. His friend, journalist Harold March, serves as his Dr. Watson but is no Dr. Watson. In the first story, “The Face in the Target,” he is described as “the rising reviewer and social critic,” on his way to interview the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Sir Howard Horne, about the latter’s so-called “socialist budget.” Walking along a stream, he meets a man fishing. They strike up a conversation. It turns out the fisherman is Horne Fisher, also on his way to the Chancellor.

Fisher is depicted as a tall, balding man. The word most often associated with him is “languid.” His eyelids droop. Nevertheless, he can rush when action is required. Poor Harold is a reporter who is forever getting fantastic scoops (The Prime Minister committed a murder!) but can never print the complete version of the stories.

What makes these stories odd is that, while Fisher reasons out the identity of the guilty parties, none of the bad’uns is ever brought to justice. Some pay a penalty of sorts, but there’s nary a hangin’. Each time, letting the malefactor off serves some greater purpose, such as preserving the (British) Empire or forestalling a war. This is part of the curse of knowing too much; Horne appreciates the world, warts and all. Not only does he understand enough to discern the answer to each baffling mystery, he knows the cost of bringing the bad’un to justice.

Author G. K. Chesterton makes full use of paradox, which turns out to be a helpful trait for Fisher in figuring mysteries out. However, a warning: the stories are a product of the author’s time and society. That is, there is causal racism and unapologetic anti-Semitism.

In the last story, “The Vengeance of the Statue,” he finally confronts Horne about his inaction.

The stories were first published in Harper’s Monthly Magazine between April 1920 and June 1922:

1. “The Face in the Target” Horne Fisher and Harold March meet. A car careens over a cliff near a stream where Fisher is fishing and the two are chatting. The single occupant is beyond doubt deceased but was not killed by the crash. Only a crack shot could have hit him while he was driving.

First published April 1920


2. “The Vanishing Prince, A Story” The Prince is question is Michael O’Neil, who has a talent for “appearing when he was not wanted and disappearing when he was wanted.” He was most often wanted by the police for his political activity. When police follow rumors that he is holed up in an old tower, several of them are killed, and the Prince is nowhere to be found—until he comes strolling onto the scene, acting for all the world like an innocent man.

First published August 1920


3. “The Soul of the Schoolboy” The Rev. Thomas Twyford takes his schoolboy nephew Summers Minor—also known as Stinks—on a day trip through London, stopping at underground chapel housing a Roman coin supposedly depicting the head of St. Paul. The only other person on the tour with them is an odd character claiming to be a “mage.” The coin is safe in a glass case behind bars. Who could steal the coin?

First published September 1920


4. “The Bottomless Well” In an unnamed British-occupied area, “in an oasis…in the red and yellow seas of sand that stretch beyond Europe toward the sunrise,” stands a landmark deep hole that may have once been a well. It’s marked by two stones. The British exiles have built a golf course around it. The reader just knows a murder victim is going to get pitched down the hole. Well, the murderer’s plans didn’t work out, either.

First published March 1921


5.  “The Fad of the Fisherman” Sir Isaac Hook has become something of a fishing fanatic. He rises early, sits by the brook, and won’t allow anyone to disturb him until he comes back to the house when he’s good and ready. Among his guests are the Prime Minister, who has asked Horne Fisher to come at once. Harold March, whose political articles are earning him some clout, is also on his way. The Prime Minister seems to be interested only in getting away.

First published June 1921


6. “The Hole in the Wall” The host of a house party decides two of his guest, an architect and an archaeologist, should have a lot in common. Unlike the other stories, this features a woman, a sister of one of the other characters, who get about the serious business of starting a costume party. This is just as well, for nothing is as it appears.

First published October 1921


7. “The Temple of Silence” This manages to be among the saddest and, at the same time, the most amusing of the stories. Horne Fisher stands for (that is, runs for) Parliament on a remarkably progressive platform. He wins, only to find out he wasn’t supposed to. He is a failure.

First published May 1922


8. “The Vengeance of the Statue” Harold March finally takes Horne Fisher to task about knowing so much and failing to do so little. He’s connected by family or friendship to the highest places in the land. He should do something!

This story produces some memorable quotes: “Believe me, you never know the best about men till you know the worst about them.”

After detailing his intricate family relations in various government positions—corrupt and incompetent as they may be—Fisher tells March he’s proud of his family.

“I am proud of the Chancellor because he gambled and of the Foreign Minister because he drank and the Prime Minister because he took a commission on a contract. … I take off my hat to them because they are defying blackmail, and refusing to smash their country to save themselves.”

First published June 1922


Some editions contain other stories that do not include Horne Fisher.


Bio:

Author G. K. Chesterton (1874-1936) is probably best known now for this Father Brown mysteries, in which a gentle, umbrella-carrying priest not only solves mysteries but also converts the well-known thief, Flambeau. Chesterton also wrote on Christian apologetics and authored some eighty books, in addition to thousands of newspaper columns.


Title: The Man Who Knew Too Much
Author:  G. K. Chesterton
First published: 1922

Review of “Our Mortal Undressing” by Hamilton Perez

Plot:

There really isn’t much of a plot, but a presentation of five vignettes of death’s encounter with humans throughout human prehistory and history. Death is alone and wants the companionship humans seem to share. It is capable of taking human form, even to the point of having sexual encounters with humans. It wants to know humans.

Thoughts:

Author Perez paints a scene in a few words using lovely metaphors:

The night is cold, the sky black and shimmery as frost. Nearby a fire swats its golden arms against the dark, and around it, they sleep. One man keeps guard over his kin. The fire beside him whispers, flickers and curls, making his skin glow amber and orange. I recognize him…

This is engaging and a delight to read.

Narrator Karen Bovenmyer reads the text slowly and clearly. Her rendering of different voices is believable. She is pleasant to listen to.

However, what these vignettes don’t do is tell a story. I appreciate the novel perspective—death is talking about what it’s like to encounter humans rather than the other way around. It’s also unusual to think of death as having unmet needs. However—

Excuse while I go chase some kids off my goddamn lawn—

Damn it, if you’re gonna write fiction, tell me a story. Yes, you’ve got lovely metaphors that depict poignant human longing. From the first to that last, death speaks with an almost human desire to be loved and wanted. It seeks to know humans.

And? So then?

This is a personal preference, but I didn’t care for this story. Others will disagree.

Bios:

According to his blurb and his website bio, author Hamilton Perez is a writer and freelance editor living in Sacramento, California. His stories have appeared in Arsenika, Metaphorosis, and The Dark. He has a dog, and he really, really likes bread.

According to her website bio, narrator Karen Bovenmyer earned an MFA in Creative Writing: Popular Fiction from the University of Southern Maine. She teaches and mentors students at Iowa State University and Western Technical College. She is the Assistant Editor of Escape Artists’ Pseudopod Podcast and was the 2016 recipient of the Horror Writers Association Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley Scholarship. Her short stories and poems appear in more than forty publications.

This story can be listened to/read here.




Title: “Our Mortal Undressing”
Podcastle 663, January 26, 2021
Author: Hamilton Perez
Narrator: Karen Bovenmyer
Host: Setsu Uzume
Audio Producer: Peter Behravesh
Length: approx. 25 mins.
First published: The Dark, May 2018
Rated: R

Review of “Decoherence is a Lady” by Lynne Sargent

Plot:

At a party, the narrator meets the perfect woman. The perfect woman then goes to study abroad for a semester. When she comes home, things are still good between them, though they have changed. If they weren’t in love before, they are now. They move in together. The fights start.

Thoughts:

Heard this one before? Of course.

This is a story, but also an extended metaphor. The author expresses the relationship in terms of physics. When the narrator begins to see certain aspects of his girlfriend differently, he refers to the experience as seeing her through “an oppositely polarized screen.” After a last argument, not only is the polarized screen rotated 90 degrees, “there are two opposite screens on top of each other and the whole picture is black with [my] rage.”

The extended metaphor, as awkward as it may appear at first blush, works. The author uses it to not only describe the evolution of the relationship but also the conclusions the narrator draws after the relationship. The author gives the reader a story, an extended metaphor, and character development.

So much for the writer’s analysis. How does it read from a reader’s standpoint? As a reader, I went along with the narrator on his journey through the joy and wonder of meeting the perfect partner (which does not exist), then doubt, the break-up, and self-discovery.

I liked it.

Bio:

According to the blurb, author Lynne Sargent is a writer, aerialist, and philosophy Ph.D. candidate currently studying at the University of Waterloo. Their work has been nominated for Rhysling and Aurora Awards and has appeared in Augur Magazine, Strange Horizons, and Plenitude. Their first collection, A Refuge of Tales, is out now from Renaissance Press. To find out more, reach out to them on Twitter @SamLynneS, or for a complete bibliography, visit them at scribbledshadows.wordpress.com.

The story can be read here.



Title: “Decoherence is a Lady”
Author: Lynne Sargent
First published: January 25, 2021, Daily Science Fiction

Review of “The 39 Steps” (1935)

trailer from YouTube

This week’s offering for Saturday pizza and bad movie turned out to be a pretty good movie. The pizza wasn’t half bad, either.

Plot:

Mr. Hannay (Robert Donat), a Canadian visiting London, stops by a music hall. One of the acts is Mr. Memory (Wylie Watson), who claims to have an enormous number of facts committed to memory. While he’s taking questions from a raucous audience, a fight breaks out. Neither the bouncers nor the police can quell it. A shot rings out, and the crowd charges for the door.

Hannay finds himself pressed against a comely young woman. Once they’re in the street, she asks him to take her home.

How… forward.

“Well, it’s your funeral,” he tells her.

At Hannay’s apartment, the woman won’t stand by a window or allow Hannay to answer his phone when it rings. She claims that she is trying to prevent a secret of great importance to England from being sent abroad. He doesn’t believe her until, at her urging, he looks out to see two men standing by a streetlight, watching.

“Have you ever heard of the thirty-nine steps?” she asks. She never explains, only continues with more crazy talk about spies, whose chief is missing the tip of his little finger. She also mentions leaving for Scotland, as “there’s a man I must visit next if anything is to be done.”

Later, Hannay’s sleep is abruptly interrupted by his guest staggering into his room. She warns him he’s in danger, then falls across his lap. She’s isn’t drunk. There’s a knife in her back. She’s clutching a map of Scotland, with the name of a village circled.

He flees. The rest of the movie is a series of pursuits, safe places turning into traps, and friendly people revealing themselves to be foes. It all makes sense in the end.

Thoughts:

The first image that greets the viewer is the British Board of Film Censors certification, assuring one and all that the following film has been passed for public exhibition to adult audiences—so shoo the kiddies from the room. Actually, the violence and sexual innuendo are tamer than video games and evening movies those kiddies have already seen. The notification is quaint.

Hannay takes the train—the Flying Scotsman—north. In his compartment, two men (Gus McNaughton and Jerry Verno), who sell women’s lingerie, have brought samples. They open suitcases and display these to each other. A third man (an uncredited Quinton McPherson), whom they belatedly realize is a clergyman, earns an apology when he leaves their compartment. One of the two salesmen buys a newspaper, where Hannay reads that a Canadian is wanted for murdering a woman in London.

The humor, interwoven with Hannay’s dread and the viewer’s knowledge of the genuine danger he’s in, makes for delightful suspense. It only gets worse.

To get away from the police on the train, he slips into a compartment with a woman (Madeleine Carrol) sitting by herself, minding her own business, and starts kissing and manhandling her. So, the cops don’t intrude on a couple making out? He seems amazed when she tells the cops, “He’s the one you’re looking for.”

The attitude toward women, not uncommon in films of the era, is that the fairer sex needs to be fought and subdued—not necessarily abused, but won over with a little force.

This is a thoroughly enjoyable film. Nothing is quite what it seems, and the viewer is invested in Hannay’s quest. Hannay is a sympathetic character, falsely accused, pursued by those who want to kill him. Add in the idea that the welfare of England is at stake. Granted, this is before the Blitz, so no one is dropping bombs on London yet. Nevertheless, Hannay must get to the man in Scotland—

The camera work is instantly recognizable as Hitchcock’s. No plane buzzes Hannay in a cornfield, nor does Hannay hang off Mt. Rushmore, but he does find himself in dangerous and uncomfortable situations. The camera often shows what Hannay sees.

There is a cameo of Hitchcock early in the film. As Hannay and the doomed woman he meets from the music hall board a bus, two men walk between them and the camera. One screenwriter Charles Bennett. The other is Hitchcock, throwing away some trash.

Had I seen this film back in the day, I might say there’s something to look forward to from that young director.

This can be found on YouTube: The 39 Steps 1935 1080p – YouTube

Title: The 39 Steps (1935)

Directed by
Alfred Hitchcock

Writing Credits
John Buchan…(adapted from the novel by)
Charles Bennett…(adaptation)
Ian Hay…(dialogue)

Cast (in credits order) verified
Robert Donat…Hannay
Madeleine Carrol…Pamela
Lucie Mannheim…Miss Smith
Godfrey Tearle…Professor Jordan
Peggy Ashcroft… Crofter’s Wife
John Laurie…Crofter

Released: August 1, 1935
Length: 1 hour, 26 minutes