Hopalong Cassidy — detective?

Please be warned that this essay concerns a film with a mystery as part of its plot, The Dead Don’t Dream; part of its enjoyment is based on surprising the reader. As I note here, the mystery portion is ridiculous and impossible to figure out, but I thought I’d make my readers aware to be on the safe side. To be honest, I’ll be giving away the “trick” of a movie that is essentially meaningless but I am giving it away, so … if you proceed past this point, you’re on your own.

hoppy_headLast fall I had a look at an old Hopalong Cassidy film, Law of the Pampas. I’ve been following right along with as many of Hoppy’s adventures as I can find; there’s a cable channel available to me that’s been re-running them.  As you might have guessed from the nature of my other interests, I’m interested in Hoppy because that brand went from being the most leveraged brand in history — in about 1951/52 it had penetrated into more markets and sold more 1951 dollars’ worth of goods than even Star Wars later managed, to my knowledge, in comparable currencies — to what it is today, which is to say barely a footnote. I think it’s safe to say that if you ask anyone today living in an English-speaking country who Hopalong Cassidy is, the word “cowboy” will come up immediately, and … nothing else.

In order to fully understand that huge arc from hero to zero, though, you need to understand something about the phenomenon that was Hopalong Cassidy (“Hoppy”, to millions of children) in the early days of television. There’s a lot to this story, and a couple of deeply fannish books have been written about it, so I’ll just hit the high spots and if you’re curious there’s more for you to discover.

Hop-a-long Cassidy - 1shtWilliam Boyd was a silent film star whose career was on the downward slide when he played Hopalong Cassidy first in 1935. Hop-Along Cassidy (aka Hopalong Cassidy Enters) was the first of 41 independent Hopalong productions released through Paramount between 1935 and 1941.  Yes, 41 movies in six years; that’s about 7 per year; they might have shot one every six weeks for most of the year then rested a while. Harry Sherman, the packaging producer, then distributed 13 Hoppy movies through United Artists between 1942 and 1944, keeping to the same breakneck speed. At some point in 1944, as I understand it (I could be wrong on the dates here) William Boyd felt that he had become indelibly associated with the Hoppy character and determined to spend the rest of his life playing him and him alone. So he hocked his assets to the hilt and purchased all rights to the character; the entire film library, merchandising, everything, for $350,000.

hoppyadThat process seemingly took all of 1945 and most of 1946; after acquiring the rights, Boyd himself began production and did a single film in 1946 and a further 11 films in 1947 and 1948, releasing them through United Artists. But the productions were not popular on the drive-in circuit and Boyd was going broke. Then he had the idea of taking one of his older pictures to the local NBC station (as I understand it, KTLA) and rented it for a nominal fee. The broadcasts were enormously popular and went to the national level almost immediately. In 1949, NBC edited the features to a suitable length for broadcast, and Hopalong Cassidy became the first network Western TV series. Apparently there were a lot of Western fans with televisions in 1949; the genre took off across the country and Hoppy’s popularity was single-handedly responsible for the resurgence of the Western genre on television in the 50s and 60s.

HoppyTVThere was a new radio programme from 1948 to 1952, and Boyd packaged a hit television show with 52 episodes of new and old material from 1952 to 1954. There were also comic books and paperbacks and you could even buy the movies themselves on 8mm and 16mm film from Castle Releasing. Boyd retired Hoppy near the top of his game, although his decision probably had something to do with the death of his long-time companion Topper, Hoppy’s big white horse. Boyd continued to make personal appearances for a few years but then apparently preferred that people remember him as he had been, declining interviews, photos and all appearances in his later years.

61Q84PPJXCL._SX363_BO1,204,203,200_What really interested me about Hoppy was that he was one of the greatest all-time feats of cross-platform marketing. I can’t say Hopalong Cassidy was the first brand that was cross-marketed in different objects — Little Orphan Annie comes to mind — but anyone who frequents flea markets and collectibles shows has seen tables of Hoppy-related materials. It was an enormously broad-based brand in its day. Literally, they stuck that brand on every conceivable product (except, strangely, for chewing gum; Boyd was against it) — lawn mowers and toy guns and sandwich loaves and neckerchiefs and TV sets and everything in between. There’s a large book or two detailing all the collectibles available and it makes for fascinating reading, although the brand has fallen out of favour today and the values have plummeted. Boyd himself made millions from licensing. And Hopalong Cassidy was the very first featured image on a lunchbox.

hoppy-headerIt’s also the case that William Boyd starred in more movies playing Hopalong Cassidy than any actor before or since has done, as an individual actor playing a single character — a grand total of 66 films. (Few were much longer than an hour.)

I imagine when you have to find 66 different ways to ring some changes on the basic set of seven Western plots (many of which can’t be done in the Hoppy context) you are hard-pressed to come up with anything new. Hoppy’s plots were repetitive and simple.  Here’s a few strains I’ve isolated after seeing perhaps two-thirds of the 66:

  • Hoppy comes to a town where someone is pretending to be an honest citizen but is really a crook; Hoppy finds out and thwarts the underlying criminal plot.
  • Hoppy comes to the defence of a farmer/rancher/little guy/helpless woman who is targeted by an unscrupulous trail boss/land baron/bully.
  • Hoppy comes to the defence of someone unjustly accused of a serious crime, and finds out who really did it.
  • Hoppy must execute a difficult task such as a cattle drive or guiding a wagon train, because someone needs his assistance.
  • Hoppy must mediate between two warring factions who want control of something (water, a town, unfenced land).
  • Someone thinks Hoppy (or one of his sidekicks, or a friend) did something wrong, or dishonourable, and he has to prove them wrong.
  • Hoppy must enter an unusual environment (go to a different country, or disguise himself and take up a different profession) and expose a criminal enterprise.

Hoppy Serves a Writ - 1shtThe one that I wanted to talk about today, at which I hinted in the title to this piece, is “Hoppy defends someone unjustly accused and finds out who really did the crime.” Just abstractly, doesn’t that sound like every Perry Mason episode you ever saw? Yes, from time to time Hoppy had to act as a detective, and that interests me. What happens when you cross a Western brand with a detective plot?

20ce0f649216fe71ddc69babf71e939aWhat prompted this interest in the possibilities of Hopalong Cassidy as a detective was a tiny segment of 1941’s Doomed Caravan. I won’t bore you with the details, especially since there aren’t many worthwhile, but essentially a bunch of outlaws capture a group of cavalrymen, steal their uniforms and equipment, and impersonate the troopers in an attempt to get close enough to rob a freight shipment that Hoppy has agreed to protect. When they arrive in town, everyone takes for granted that they are who they say they are. But Hoppy’s suspicions are aroused by a number of small inconsistencies in their clothing and gear.  He investigates a little, and questions one man about a bullet hole in his shirt and another about the wrong initials in his hatband. We see his eyes narrow, but he keeps his suspicions to himself until it comes time to save the day.

cdb2da219c6b80bec78aa253db7ea35cFor fans of mysteries on film, this film’s strongest player is Minna Gombell. She had a first-rate second-rate career in films, toiling away in relative obscurity, but she made an impression on me in 1934’s The Thin Man as Mimi Wynant Jorgenson, the greedy widow who would do nearly anything for money. Here she plays a tough but straight-shooting frontierswoman who needs the freight shipment to succeed, and her acting skills stand out a mile against her surrounding players. There’s nothing else of any great interest in this movie, but it did pique my interest to see if Hopalong Cassidy had ever displayed any great detective chops.

a5f5f7f13c4932f7c488e63ffed9c5b9There is one late entry in the series, 1948’s The Dead Don’t Dream, which would seem like the ideal candidate; I remember being quite excited when I read the information in the TV listing. Hoppy comes to the Last Chance Inn (at which all the local gold prospectors stay) to attend the wedding of his sidekick Lucky Jenkins to the niece of a wealthy local miner. The miner disappears from the inn and is found dead the next day. And the next night, the man who sleeps in that same room at the inn vanishes and is found dead elsewhere the next day. In fact this is the third time it’s happened.

Now, that’s a bare-bones story hook worthy of John Dickson Carr, isn’t it? What a pity something happened along the way to this admirable concept. What went wrong, I’m not entirely sure. Hoppy starts to investigate the rancher’s disappearance immediately, trying to get the wedding back on the rails. But this movie doesn’t really make any sense. There is ominous music when it seems like people are listening outside a door, or when something scary might happen … but nothing ever really happens. Hoppy seems to have a string of unaccountable and unmentioned intuitions that guide him as to precisely what to do next to make the plot move along at a brisk clip, but none of them are motivated by anything that actually happens or even anything that’s spoken about.  Within the hour, for instance, Hoppy is off to see the uncle’s dark and ominous gold mine — for no real reason except that no one knows where the uncle’s gold is kept. Yes, the uncle is there and he’s deceased. And everyone just sort of accepts this and sits around and talks about it, until Hoppy figures out what’s going on (more divine intuition).

People come and go, people talk about events, but no one detects and there’s nothing that happens that explains anything. The killer tries to kill Hoppy, and it’s never clear why, except of course that he’s investigating.

HopalongCassidyFilms.gifAfter further hubbub and back and forth, people coming and going, Hoppy finally figures out that the room contains a four-poster bed that kills people. In the middle of the night, the top of the bed descends soundlessly, suffocates the sleeper, and then returns to its topmost position. Now, this is also a clever idea. But in terms of the plot, it makes no sense at all. The owner of the inn has nothing to do with it; the actual criminal is someone who occasionally stays at the inn. How did the bed get there? WHY did the bed get there? Who in this Western world needed to kill people surreptitiously? When you think about it, in the other Hoppy movies, people die all the time from gunshots without any need for complicated mechanical traps.

There’s more, but it makes just as little sense as what’s gone before. Lucky’s engagement is broken (which everyone in the contemporaneous audience would have known to be inevitable anyway; Lucky has to chase the girls to keep the plots moving). Hoppy identifies the killer, and how I will never know, since there are no clues; he accepts someone’s comment as to one of the suspects’ criminal background. No detection, no investigation, just intuition and action.

To sum up — this is a great idea for a mystery movie, that suffers from terrible execution. No one thought any of this through, it’s just needless obfuscation, and the script has no underlying logic. Just a bunch of things that happen, ominous music, the killer gets arrested, and Hoppy makes a little joke as everyone prepares to leave.

983712c1ad67e46193d162211ca9f2b0At the time of production of The Dead Don’t Dream in 1948, the brand was just about at its nadir. Boyd was paying for the productions himself and cutting corners wherever possible; mostly by sticking with a small crew, trying to get everything in a single take, and skimping on services like music and screenwriters, using unknowns who needed experience. These weren’t even as good as the early “B” pictures in the series but more like “C” grade. I understand that, particularly with Boyd’s self-produced films, they were later chopped up a little to fit into television running times, which might explain the general air of incoherence and unmotivated plot developments in this outing. I suspect there’s another ten minutes of plot that needed to make it into the finished product and didn’t.

So unless there’s something I haven’t yet managed to see, the chances of Hopalong Cassidy taking shape as a detective are slim to none. Occasionally he participated in a mystery-like plot, just as he occasionally participated in the occasional romantic plot, but overall, his Western chops remain unsullied by any cross-genre participation.  In a way, it’s too bad. The Hoppy brand had a huge following in its day, but if it had been rebooted as a “Western detective” series, who knows, it might still be around today!

Law of the Pampas (1939)

law_of_the_pampas_posterJust lately I’ve discovered the pleasures of a new-to-me TV channel, “Silver Screen”, whose mission seems to be, “Let’s keep the programming budget as close to zero as possible.” So I’ve been experiencing the pleasures of a lot of rubbishy old films that few people other than me take seriously.

I’ve been enjoying a lot of elderly Westerns of no particular merit, including entries in the long-running Hopalong Cassidy series. In 1939, when Law of the Pampas was made, there were no fewer than four Hoppy movies (there were SEVEN made in 1943, which must have been exhausting), and in total there are sixty-six of them. Say what you will about their quality, 66 films equals a long-running and durable brand — and you knew who Hopalong Cassidy was without being told, didn’t you? That’s what interests me.

rm5qzy7xWilliam Boyd plays Hoppy, and Russell Hayden is along for the ride as sidekick Lucky Jenkins. Hoppy always had two sidekicks; one handsome young cowboy, and usually the grizzled old Gabby Hayes as comedy relief. Here Hayes is absent and the comedy relief role is filled by “Argentinian” Sidney Toler.

The story is simple enough. Our heroes to go Argentina to deliver some prize bulls to rancher Pedro DeCordoba; Pedro has been having troubles, what with two of his children dying in “accidents”. Nobody pins down the source of trouble to Sidney Blackmer’s evil American son-in-law “Ralph Merritt”, who is eliminating other potential heirs to the estancia, until Hoppy’s suspicions are aroused. Steffi Duna plays Chiquita, Blackmer’s misguided mistress who thinks she’ll marry Ralph and rule the roost, and Sidney Toler plays Fernando Ramirez, the ranch foreman. Hoppy remembers he’s seen the son-in-law’s face on an American wanted poster and brings him to justice, in an exciting finish that looks like every other Western chase sequence you’ve ever seen — but with bolas as well as six-guns.

bill-boyd

William Boyd as Hopalong Cassidy

Why is this oater worth your time? Well, you will probably not be intellectually troubled by the mystery plot, which has a kind of inevitability about it from the start. It’s not completely obvious, as is often the case in Hoppy’s outings, but it’s clear who the guilty party is from the start. (Sidney Blackmer could easily have had “Bad Guy” written on his forehead in Sharpie.) There is a tiny bit of originality in that it takes place in “South America” — although everyone speaks English and the sets look exactly the same as all the other American-set Hoppy films. “The King’s Men” do a turn as singing cowhands, which is silly and fun, and B-player stalwart Anna Demetrio has some nice moments as Toler’s big fat wife Dolores.

russell-hayden-and-steffi-duna

Russell Hayden, sidekick, and Steffi Duna

Neither will you be troubled by trying to decipher the characterization; there really isn’t any. Hopalong Cassidy at this point was so well known to his primary fan base of children that all he has to do is show up and not do anything evil or mean. The script is written so as to explain to you everyone’s role upon their first appearance and all you have to do is settle back and wait for the inevitable.

anna-demetrio-and-sidney-toler

Anna Demetrio (L), Sidney Toler (R)

What really interested me was that this film was made in 1939; Sidney Toler was at that time deeply involved in headlining the Charlie Chan series. Essentially he played a South American cowboy and a Chinese-Hawaiian detective in the same year, and to my eye and ear he plays both roles with exactly the same facial expressions and accent, despite his Missouri origins. In fact Toler made eight films in 1939, playing ranch hands, gauchos, Charlie Chan, a shady lawyer, a Chinese racket-buster and an intrepid judge. Quite an accomplishment.

sidney-blackmer-and-steffi-duna-1939

Sidney Blackmer (L), Steffi Duna (R)

Also of interest to me was the performance by Steffi Duna as the Chiquita of easy virtue. When she arrived in Hollywood in 1934 from Hungary — yes, Hungary — she played a long succession of Hispanic characters, slinky Euro-trash, and even an “Eskimo” (in 1934’s Man of Two Worlds). You really had to work hard in those days to submerge your origins and make a living as a B-movie actor!

This film is available in various places for free; it seems to have somehow fallen out of copyright. Free-Classic-Movies.com will let you watch as much of it as you can stand for nothing!

 

The Remaining (2014): Christian morality porn

The-Remaining-I-2014The Remaining (2014) was recommended by a friend who knows my interest in cheeseball horror or, indeed, cheeseball anything else; given a choice between a four-star film and a zero-star film, you’ll find me curled up in front of the piece de merde with a big smile on my face. I always say you can learn more about filmmaking from a terrible movie than a good one; a good film is seamless and it takes three or four viewings to come a full realization of, say, how the camera angles contribute to a sense of dread, or whatever. Whereas if you’re watching Sharknado or one of its fellow crapfests, you’re constantly thinking to yourself, “Wow, I would have avoided doing THAT,” and you start to learn the difference between good and bad filmmaking.

imagesBelieve me, you’ll learn a lot about filmmaking from this one!

Author: Chris Downing and Casey La Scala, who also directed.

Cast: Alexa Vega, who was the older sister in the Spy Kids movies and is now all grown up. Her Wikipedia biography cites her strong Christian faith. The remainder of the cast is a bunch of, generally, unknown actors who have small TV roles to their credit and who presumably needed the work.

The-Remaining-movie-church-photoOther data: According to Wikipedia, it grossed $1.7 million. Nobody’s apparently willing to disclose production costs, but I suspect this didn’t make back its money since there is no mention anywhere on the internet of The Remaining 2 being a possibility.

remaining_rapture-eyesAbout this film: This film starts out with an overlong sequence before the Rapture occurs at the 11-minute mark which establishes the characters and situation. It’s part of the currently very awful handheld camera trend, which started out as clever when The Blair Witch Project did it and is now a way of making a movie if you have a very low budget; one character clutches his camera despite all trials and tribulations. At the precise Raptorial moment, a viewpoint character is running his camera while coming down in an elevator with the bride’s parents; her mother is just saying that she wishes her daughter had been married in a church when — in a nice little moment — you can see the characters’ breath as everything gets very cold. Wham, half the wedding guests fall down and die, and their eyes glaze over. Weird things begin to happen; a little earthquake, some sort of sonic boom, and people start running from the building. In what has to be the nicest piece of production in this whole film, a huge airplane falls out of the sky and crashes into a nearby building. A handful of young people leave the building and head for a library to protect themselves as chunks of ice fall from the sky; they immediately decide it’s the Rapture because, as the bride sententiously remarks, “All the good people are gone, and all the bad people are left here.”  Well, the bride may be a bad person (I think we’re meant to believe she and her new husband had premarital sex) but she has grasped the concept immediately. She finds a bible in the library, buried under a stack of Nora Roberts novels, and, sure enough, everything was foretold precisely as it’s happening! They pick up a pretty young blond woman, who comes along with them for no apparent reason. They go to a church to find the bride’s BFF who, unbeknownst to her boyfriend, heads there every time they have a fight. The bride gets picked up by an invisible flying thing and gets dropped to the ground with terrible claw marks in her back; the bible she was clutching is now burned to ash.

images-1The kids meet up with the BFF at the church, engage in some hokey moralizing to cheer themselves up, and get patched up by a woman who is apparently the only person of colour left on earth. Some people head out to a hospital to get the bride some medical assistance, but of course there isn’t any. All the young people start to speculate about what’s going on and why they were spared (one girl says, without a hint of a smile, “I’m a good person. I’m just not a churchy good person, that’s all.”) The handsome bearded pastor who is holding down the church reveals that he was a bad person because even though he sort of believed in Jesus, he didn’t really; he was paying lip service, as it were. The church gets attacked by what might be demons, and everybody heads for the basement; the handheld video switches to the green of low-light shooting, which is both difficult to believe and damn near impossible to see. The pastor gets swept up by the invisible demons and disappears. At daylight, the young people (almost everyone in this film is meant to be 18-25) decide to make their way out through the now destroyed church and past the very-dead pastor. (People seem to develop sudden urges to move to the next location for no really good reason, almost as though the set rental had expired.) Off to the hospital, past a bunch of 18-25 extras wandering aimlessly around, only to find that the hospital is empty of medical help and supplies. The bride dies in her groom’s arms in what is meant to be a dramatic and poignant scene — she sees heaven and whispers how beautiful it is. The groom heads outside and curses God because she died — oh-oh, bad idea.  Yeah, a gigantic spike comes out of nowhere and kills him, then whisks him off into the sky. An invisible force in the hospital kills a few more kids. The few remaining kids, including the cynical videographer, head off to what appears to be a refugee camp. Golly, it’s almost as though the American system has come through and is restoring order! One of the hospital victims has left a video on her phone for her videographer boyfriend where she realizes the futility of her former life, where she was “spiritual” but not religious — now, oh, how she regrets it all. “We all have to make a choice.” She weeps and chooses God; whoops, she gets killed! The boyfriend goes off and gets baptized, while “Amazing Grace” plays in the background. But the other kid realizes that all that churchiness will draw the demons, and the newly baptized videographer gets torn apart by invisible demons. The two remaining kids, cynical boy and non-churchy girl, clutch each other — she decides to choose God too, and leaves the cynical guy behind as dark creepy demons start to come out of the sky. Cynical guy gets dragged away by demons as the movie ends.

This movie is very low budget. There are a couple of expensive pieces of SFX (airplane hits a building, and a quick scene where the young people walk past a burning helicopter) but by and large, the demons are literally invisible. So if you’re accustomed to movies that actually show you the monsters with which they’re trying to scare you once in a while, you will be disappointed; they couldn’t afford it. All the actors are fairly good, but they struggle with the dialogue they’re given. Alexa Vega’s death scene is just awful; it’s as though she said, “I’m not doing this film unless you give me one scene where I can go all out.” The trouble is, the underlying emotions are conceived by people who probably haven’t experienced them, and so they’re burlesqued and hokey. Cheap sets, no costumes, almost zero in the way of good special effects. And that extremely annoying handheld camera throughout, which makes me think merely that they couldn’t afford Panavision. Inserts that are obviously stock footage from Weather Channel. And the whole cast is (a) 18-25, (b) white, and (c) unconvincing. The whole thing is rather like Ed Wood Jr. had converted to Christianity and made this cheese log in honour of his newfound faith.

maxresdefaultWhat does this all mean? Now, as I mentioned, I do enjoy cheeseball horror. What struck me as sufficiently interesting about this film to warrant a blog post is something that I noticed about it, and its companion pieces about the Rapture, Left Behind/Left Behind II, two gloriously awful pieces of cinema starring, in #1, the execrable Nicolas Cage, and in #2, the execrable Kirk Cameron. Essentially, the Rapture flips the horror narrative by killing the good guys and making the bad guys suffer; I think I might have figured out why.

Back at the dawn of the slasher movie, people realized that there was a common pattern to be seen in horror movies intended primarily for a teenage audience; if you were a morally unsound person, you got killed, and if you were a young female virgin, you had a chance of surviving to the sequel. This gave rise to the umbrella description of this genre as “fuck and die movies”. It’s always the kids who are making out in the car who are the First To Die; the bullies, mean girls, sexually advanced, LGBT, petty criminals, disobedient kids, and even cigarette smokers were doomed to be chainsawed, or whatever the killer’s mode of choice happened to be for that property. Bad people die; good people live.

Here, though, all the good people die 11 minutes into the movie, and the rest are merely marking time until Satan’s minions snatch them up. Oh, they’re not REALLY bad; it seems clear that most of these good-looking youngsters are the kind of kids we would think of as good, it’s just that they had the misfortune to not have devoted themselves heart and soul to a Christian church. It’s the equivalent of premarital sex in a Jason Voorhees slasher; if you’re not good, you have to live through — according to the bible — seven years of torture and punishment. (Being strapped to a chair while Left Behind II played on endless repeat, for instance.)

The-Remaining-2But if you think about it, there’s something wrong with this idea. Who is the audience for this movie? I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to suggest that the only people who are taking this seriously — and who are not, like me, reeking of marijuana and giggling uncontrollably in the back row — are your basic hard-core dedicated Christians. And the movie is telling them that what they have to look forward to is dying 11 minutes into the movie. Oh, sure, they go to live with Jesus and all. But they die.

So is this meant to be a kind of “scared straight” moment for the pot smokers in the back row? I suppose there are some hard-core Christians who are stupid enough to believe that that could happen. But honestly, if a single person sees “the error of their ways” as a result of viewing this potboiler, I suggest his mental stability was none too solid in the first place, and Christianity is liable to be supplanted by Scientology, weightlifting, or anti-psychotics, in the very near future.

No, I think what this is is actually a particularly nasty kind of porn; Xtian revenge porn. (My regular readers know that I use the word “porn” to describe artistic endeavours that have the trappings of strong emotion without actually delivering.) The message here is, “Teenage evangelical Christians, you are RIGHT. Yes, your classmates all think you’re an idiot; you aren’t allowed to have sex before marriage, are constantly wracked with guilt for your ‘sins’, and are no longer even close to being the dominant paradigm. But you know what? Here’s what’s going to happen. When the Rapture comes, you’re going to go live with Jesus in heaven, and all those people who laughed at you — they’ll be torn to bits by mystical demons.” So your typical evangelical teenager in some rural flyover red state gets to experience what will happen to his enemies — that pretty girl who mocked him for being a virgin, that cynical popular guy who called him a dork, that pastor whom he suspected wasn’t really, really a true believer — in as much grisly detail as the budget could afford, which isn’t much. Yeah, that’ll teach YOU, you bastards. Just you wait till the Rapture comes, then you’ll be laughing out of the other side of your mouth. And I’ll be in heaven! All their lives they’ve watched Freddy Kruger whisk people off to hell, but for the wrong reasons … it makes perfect sense that they would believe that this large-scale revenge on the unchurched would be both imminent and this violent. Because if a little seed of doubt begins to creep in …

And that’s the trouble with the moral high ground — you have to be a really, really good person to claim it, and when you do, it’s awfully easy to slide off. If you think about this logically, taking any pleasure in this movie is a sin (because you REALLY should be trying to lead all these unchurchy people to the Lord, right?) and so by enjoying the suffering of the infidel you render yourself susceptible to be whisked into the sky by invisible demons. Oh, too bad, so sad.

I think I’ll risk the demons. Besides, if I actually did end up in heaven, I might have to endure Kirk Cameron being a pompous dick; I’d rather be in hell with my friends, thanks.

Notes for the collector:

You can get a used DVD of this for $4.82 on Amazon as of today. Why you’d bother I have no idea … but then, I’ve found in the past that it’s the significantly awful artistic items that become the most desirable and expensive in the future. If there is still the equivalent of a Blockbuster in your town, you should be able to pick this up in the bargain bin for $1.49 in about two years; see if you can manage that. But this is not a film for viewing; this is a film for laying down and avoiding.

The Nurse’s Secret (1941)

nursesecretThe Nurse’s Secret (1941) is definitely at the B level but is still worth 65 minutes of your viewing time. It’s a fairly faithful remake of Miss Pinkerton (1932), which was based upon an eponymous novel by Mary Roberts Rinehart. Pretty young Nurse Adams is assigned to special duty at an old decaying mansion. The elderly matriarch’s spendthrift son has blown his brains out, we are told, and the matriarch discovered his body and promptly had a “severe nervous shock”, so requires full-time nursing. The nurse’s boyfriend, police Inspector Patten, asks her to investigate on his behalf. Well, the matron is acting strange, but then so is the butler, and the butler’s wife, and and the dead guy’s girlfriend, and the guy who lives across the street. And it looks more and more likely as if the verdict of accident upon which the matriarch is insisting isn’t all that believable after all. Nurse Adams gets dangerously close to being accused of the second crime before she and her boyfriend sort it all out and Inspector Patten applies the handcuffs.

Lee Patrick

Lee Patrick

The earlier film stars Joan Blondell and George Brent at the top of their respective games; this film stars Lee Patrick as Nurse Adams and Regis Toomey as her boyfriend from Homicide.  You may never have heard of Lee Patrick, whom I see as a hard-working woman at the second rank of stardom (or lower). Her most memorable role was earlier in 1941; she plays the small but memorable role of Sam Spade‘s secretary Effie Perrine in The Maltese Falcon. She’s more of a character actor than a glamorous lead. This might actually be her only starring role in a film (although if someone knows differently, I’d appreciate being informed). The unsubstantiated story is that her husband, a writer for magazines, did an unflattering piece on gossipeuse Louella Parsons and Lee Patrick’s career suffered forever as a result.

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Regis Toomey

It’s amusing to watch Miss Pinkerton and then The Nurse’s Secret one after the other because you get to see clearly what it is that makes a B a B. Lee Patrick’s salary was probably a tenth of what Joan Blondell earned for the same role. Patrick has a certain quality of hardness that Blondell only approaches; hard to explain, but you get the feeling that where Blondell might utter a racy wisecrack, Patrick would — away from the microphones — rip off a string of unprintable curses. This isn’t based on anything except my feeling about the two of them, but Blondell certainly turned out to have more widespread popularity and hence staying power. George Brent and Regis Toomey are roughly equal as the two hard-nosed cops. Everything in the B version is less expensive, and less well chosen, and just generally cheaper; sets, costumes, and the quality of everyone and everything in each film. The first film features a creepy old mansion; the second film features a not very creepy old mansion with some weird daytime lighting effects of random shadows that can’t be caused by anything imaginable. Miss Pinkerton builds tension and sustains it; The Nurse’s Secret doesn’t manage to build tension for very long before it dissipates it with ugly lighting, a noodly-doodly music score and a poorly-chosen supporting cast.

Clara Blandick

Clara Blandick

The only high point in The Nurse’s Secret is the actor playing the elderly matriarch, Clara Blandick. I first noticed her chewing the scenery in a small but significant role in Philo Vance Returns (1947), but I later started seeing her in everything everywhere; you know how that goes. Once you recognize a character actor’s face you can’t imagine how you ever missed her before. She played Auntie Em in The Wizard of Oz; and generally played in 100+ films, frequently made up to be older than she actually was. And my audience of mystery fans may remember her in a tiny role in the 1936 Perry Mason production, The Case of the Velvet Claws; she plays Judge Mary at night court who marries Perry to Della Street just before the honeymoon is ruined by a murder.

As I’ve said, there’s nothing here that you haven’t seen somewhat better written and more expensively portrayed in the earlier film. But if you’re like me and enjoy seeing the first-hand effects of turning an A film into a B production, this will amuse you. And if you haven’t managed to see Miss Pinkerton, it will whet your appetite for something more solid!

 

 

 

The Hidden Hand (1942)

6p8rlsnThe Hidden Hand (1942) came to my attention recently as a result of my having a DVR; now I can record things that are shown in the wee hours of the morning, for instance, without worrying whether I’ll actually care to watch them at a more suitable time. This is a pleasure I haven’t always had, and I appreciate it.

There was some Golden Age of Detection (GAD) interest (and a few of my own hobbyhorses being ridden) that sparked my curiosity sufficiently to give it a go. Aside from an interesting set of writing credits and a low-cost but well-chosen cast, this is an interesting example of a favourite sub-genre of mind, Old Dark House (ODH).

hiddenhand00ODH as a sub-genre started very early, in about the 1910s as the basis for novels and silent movies. It has a basic story that takes place at, yes, an old house that is poorly lit. Inside the house, there is at least one insane killer, pretty much, who is hiding somewhere in the house and creeps around via secret passages, making things happen from behind sliding panels, and keeping an eye on things from behind an oil painting where the painted eyes can be replaced by those of a real person. The electricity is out, the telephone wires have been cut, and there’s a report of an escaped lunatic on the radio. Add in beautiful young girls, large amounts of money and/or jewelry, and lots of frustrated heirs and … well, you pretty much know what happens.

6Ra7ngnQrYlP8nFwxNP2maGkcaXThe credits told me that the screenplay was based on a 1934 play called “Invitation to a Murder” by Rufus King, an excellent mystery writer of the GAD period. The interesting thing to the film buff about this is that I looked into the play and found that it was a Broadway vehicle for the pairing of Gale Sondergaard, as the crazy matriarch, and Humphrey Bogart, as her crazy brother. I expect that Bogart’s salary in 1942 would have been more than what is apparently the whole budget for this film, so it’s understandable that they didn’t ask him to repeat his role. Frankly, at this point I think Gale Sondergaard’s salary would have been more than the budget of this cheapie. But gosh, I wish they had had recorded the play in some way. What a fascinating piece of film that would have been!

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Willie Best

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Milton Parsons (L), Cecil Cunningham (R)

IMDB told me that a few interesting minor Hollywood faces were part of the cast. These days I’m a big Willie Best fan; the man was a dependable character actor who made a LOT of movies and I’m always interested in his role in a film (asking
yourself why a film needs a “comedy Negro” is frequently an interesting question). Here, he gets fourth billing as the houseboy Eustis ahead of a lot of white people, which was not always the case. Wade Boteler (Sheriff Selby, uncredited) played all kinds of policemen in a long career — his is a face you will vaguely recognize if you follow stock actors. Monte Blue as the undertaker, uncredited — Mr. Blue was a romantic lead in the silent days and kept working until 1960. You can see Milton Parsons, the “crazy brother”, in lots of old mysteries of the period; I first saw his distinctive face as Dr. A. Tomic in the B classic Dick Tracy Meets Gruesome. And Cecil Cunningham, who plays the crazy matriarch Lucinda Channing, had a long career playing matriarchs and divas.

And the plot that is portrayed by this ensemble of second- and third-tier, but hard-working, character actors? I think it would be kind to say “Not much.” I’ve seen this film twice through today, and I am still at a loss as to why exactly some things happen — and the second time through, I was trying to find out. This is not a film where you want to be tracing down motivations and timetables; this is designed to be what I believe audiences of the period might have understood as a “thrill ride”. And although the boundaries and definitions of Old Dark House are quite elastic, there are many, many elements in this film that will speak specifically of ODH to the average viewer.

tumblr_met56io91z1qz72v7o1_500A wealthy elderly woman, who is later revealed to be pretty much a homicidal maniac, goes to some trouble to spring her brother, who is immediately revealed to be pretty much a homicidal maniac, from his lunatic asylum. It’s not absolutely clear why, but certainly Lucinda wants to further her brother’s homicidal career because she takes pleasure in its violent results. Simultaneously, she has also called together her relatives, most of whom are anxious to get money from her fairly immediately, and the requisite “nice young couple”. The family arrives nearly simultaneously with the escaped brother who, in a nice touch, arrives at the house in the rumble seat of the car full of officials come to warn Lucinda. It appears that Lucinda has been passing as entirely sane but is about to decompensate rapidly. However, everyone, including her Asian houseboy and her “coloured” houseboy (Willie Best), treats her as being sane at the outset.

It seems as though Miss Lucinda has brought her greedy relatives to her house for a couple of general reasons; she wants to taunt them by threatening to leave her money to her innocent young secretary, the daughter of an old beau, and she wants her crazy brother to kill them. I think. It’s hard to say exactly what’s going on here, frankly, but here is where the elements of ODH begin to come in and things start to make less and less sense. Miss Lucinda, as I noted, is apparently sane. However, she has created a network of secret passages throughout her house, including a couple of lookouts where a secretive viewer’s eyes replace those of a family portrait or peep through a decorative artwork while spying on a room. Rather hard to explain those to a renovator, but … what the heck. Even more difficult to explain is a death trap whereby a greedy treasure-seeker spins a wall-mounted wheel according to a clue sheet, thinking to expose a secret cavity and a quarter of Miss Lucinda’s fortune. Instead, a trap door opens and the treasure-seeker plummets dozens of feet through a huge cavern into a swiftly-flowing underground river. Which runs directly under the living room and somehow miraculously bypasses the cellars. That must have been exceptionally difficult to arrange with the architect, I think.

At one point, Miss Lucinda arranges to be put into a state of suspended animation, feigning death so she can observe the behaviour of her heirs. She entrusts the injection of the cure to one of said heirs, who predictably declines to inject her; but she’s been too wise for that old gag. A maid dies by drinking a glass of water and a character later knowingly mentions the smell of bitter almonds. The maid’s body disappears — pretty much all the bodies disappear and pop up again in a different context to incriminate someone else. People betray their spouses or partners, expecting to inherit. There’s a spinning wall in one of the rooms behind which bodies appear and disappear. And poor Willie Best keeps seeing dead bodies and mysteriously-vanishing sandwiches that no one else can see, rendering him predictably googly-eyed with terror.

In the end, after a brisk 63 minutes of ODH hijinks, most of the bad people are dead, the young lovers will inherit, and Willie Best accidentally triggers the death trap and hangs over the underground river clutching the wall-mounted wheel for dear life as the credits play.

There is truly not much sense to be had here. I think the dedicated viewer of old B-movies will understand my sensation that the plot was capable of going just about anywhere it needed to, in order to provide thrills and surprises at five-minute intervals. In abstract terms, there is so much plot going on here to support the characters that there isn’t really time for anything to make sense in 63 minutes. The crazy matriarch and her crazy brother who are plotting against a handful of sinister relatives who have murder on their own minds — that’s a lot of murderous intent that has to be gotten across. Nobody has time for the library scene at the end where someone explains who exactly it was that poisoned Lucinda’s pet raven or why exactly Lucinda created a weird death trap in her living room, so they just ignore it.

When I started drafting this piece, I’d originally planned on ending up by commenting that ODH was a genre whose time had come and gone. William Castle actually re-re-made J. D. Priestly’s original The Old Dark House in 1963 — but as a comedy. Someone had redone The Cat and the Canary in 1978, and that was pretty much the end of ODH as a genre. Or was it? I was idly surfing and found that someone had recommended a Tom Hanks movie called The ‘Burbs from 1989 as being a new take on ODH.

SpooksFor me, ODH has always been based in the medium in which I first encountered it, Warner Brothers cartoons featuring Bugs Bunny. And you know when a trope like ODH becomes a figure of mockery that it either dies completely or else is rebooted for a new generation in a much more sophisticated media environment, like what happened to Sherlock Holmes. But ODH is a set of interlocking cliches, based around a primitive technique of building suspense for a few seconds and then making a loud noise to give the audience a momentary frisson.  Was ODH gone, vanished as a literary trope like stories about plucky orphans who become millionaires, or “white man finds a lost African kingdom” stories?

So while I tried to track down a copy of The ‘Burbs, I wondered. Really, it seemed to me that ODH had died because it had been eclipsed by the ability of the audience to be scared by much, much more dreadful sights than a hand poking out from a secret panel behind a picture and stealing sandwiches. For instance, a parasitic alien that bursts out of its host’s abdomen, etc. I think ODH was related to phenomena like the “spook show”, and scary entertainment that predated modern special-effects techniques; all kinds of different horror tropes packed into one vehicle and conveniently labeled “Old Dark House” so you know what you’re getting — a little thrill, a little scream, and then a pleasant sense of relief from fear. (As I understand it, in pre-television days, teenage boys used to like to take girls to scary movies so that they could get hugged.) Things are a lot scarier now, and media consumers are more difficult to frighten.

I screened The ‘Burbs and — well, someone was off track. Certainly there is a creepy old house, but the plot is based around a suburban neighbourhood’s inhabitants to find out what’s going on inside it, and not about being inside it with weird things and masked figures scooting around. But it made me wonder why someone had drawn that connection. I thought about a lot of movies with which everyone would be familiar, that had an “old dark house” element as a fairly major component, and some will be surprising to you. Psycho (1960), Scary Movie 2 (2001), The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975); sure, you can see how that would fit naturally. But I confess that considering part of Fight Club (1999) and Misery (1990) as ODH tributes added a different dimension to two movies with which I thought I was already familiar. The elements of ODH like sliding panels and portraits with cut-out eyes have mostly vanished — although the revolving wall trick makes an occasional recurrence, as in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989) — but all those elements have been absorbed into a vast sea of films and television about big rickety poorly-lit mansions. If your protagonist is in such an environment and there actually IS a sliding panel, the audience may not find it very original but they certainly won’t think it’s out of place.

I’m not expecting anyone to remake Cat and the CanaryThe Bat or The Old Dark House any time soon. But I’ve found it pleasant to trace the rise and fall of their underlying tropes and you may actually learn something about why it is that a big old poorly-lit house is used as a kind of shorthand for a package of cliches that produce “Boo!” moments. This might be a fun place to start.

PVR Overload!

watching-tvIt’s been a little bit more than a year since I got my first PVR, and in my usual way I’ve managed to fill more than half of it up with stuff that I’m absolutely sure I’m going to review “real soon now”. Unfortunately the backlog is such that I think I’m going to merely do one big recommendation, just in case you find some of these items passing by in your television feed and a brief recommendation will tip the balance, or perhaps get you to add a title to your Netflix list (I don’t have Netflix; I have boxes of DVDs LOL).

I should mention that these films have all been on Turner Classic Movies since March 2013. If you don’t get TCM and you like old mysteries, this might be a good investment for you; TCM is not reluctant about re-running movies once every year or so. I liked all these films enough to hold onto them in the hopes of reviewing them someday; I will suggest that any of them will fill an idle hour, although your mileage may vary. I’m one of those people who enjoys bad movies but I understand that that taste is not universally shared.

Ricardo-Cortez-and-June-TravisCHere’s what about 40% of my DVR’s storage capacity looks like:

  • Three Perry Mason movies with Warren William: TCOT Howling Dog (1934), TCOT Lucky Legs (1935), TCOT Velvet Claws (1936).  And with Ricardo Cortez, TCOT Black Cat (1936).
  • Murder on the Blackboard (1934), and Murder on a Honeymoon (1935); Hildegarde Withers mysteries with Edna May Oliver. Murder on a Bridle Path (1936) with Helen Broderick as Miss Withers. The Plot Thickens (1936) and Forty Naughty Girls (1937), featuring ZaSu Pitts as Miss Withers
  • The Thirteenth Chair (1937); Dame May Whitty plays a spiritualist who solves a murder.
  • Detective Kitty O’Day (1944) and Adventures of Kitty O’Day (1944), where Jean Parker plays the titular telephone operator at a hotel who solves mysteries with her boyfriend, Peter Cookson.
  • The Death Kiss (1933): Bela Lugosi is top-billed but only supports this story about an actor who’s killed while on set shooting a movie called “The Death Kiss”. I love backstage movies where the real camera pulls back to reveal a fake camera and crew shooting the movie within the movie!
  • Having Wonderful Crime (1945): Pat O’Brien as J.J. Malone and George Murphy/Carole Landis as Jake and Helene Justus in a story based on a Craig Rice novel. And Mrs. O’Malley and Mr. Malone (1950), where James Whitmore plays J. J. Malone and, the script having been changed from Hildegarde Withers, Marjorie Main plays the earthy Mrs. O’Malley. (Her novelty song is worth the price of admission alone.)
  • After the Thin Man (1936), Another Thin Man (1939), Shadow of the Thin Man (1941), and The Thin Man Goes Home (1944). Nick and Nora Charles (William Powell and Myrna Loy).
  • chained-for-life-3Chained For Life (1952): Real-life conjoined twins Daisy and Violet Hilton have a vaudeville act, but when one murders the other’s husband, they both end up on trial. Yes, seriously. They sing and dance, not very well. The kind of movie that it sounds like much more fun to watch than it actually is, unfortunately.
  • The Dragon Murder Case (1934), with Warren William as Philo Vance; The Casino Murder Case (1935), with Paul Lukas as Vance; The Garden Murder Case (1936), with Edmund Lowe as Vance; Calling Philo Vance (1940), with James Stephenson as Vance. And The Kennel Murder Case (1933), with William Powell as the best Vance of all.
  • The Murder of Dr. Harrigan (1936), with Kay Linaker as the multi-named Sarah Keate (in this case, Sally Keating — from the Sarah Keate novels by Mignon Eberhart). Ricardo Cortez as the love interest.
  • Sherlock Holmes (1922), starring John Barrymore in the famous silent.
  • Miss Pinkerton (1932), with Joan Blondell as a sleuthing nurse from the novel by Mary Roberts Rinehart.
  • Guilty Hands (1931), wherein Lionel Barrymore kills his daughter’s sleazy boyfriend.
  • The Scarlet Clue (1945), with Sidney Toler as Charlie Chan investigating a murder at a radio station.
  • before d 1Before Dawn (1933), a good old-fashioned Old Dark House film with Stuart Erwin and Dorothy Wilson as a beautiful young psychic.
  • We’re on the Jury (1937), with Helen Broderick and Victor Moore as jurors on a murder case who comically take the law into their own hands.
  • The Ex-Mrs. Bradford (1936), with William Powell and Jean Arthur as a sleuthing couple.
  • Welcome Danger (1929), a comedy with Harold Lloyd investigating murders in San Francisco’s Chinatown.
  • They Only Kill Their Masters (1972), with James Garner as a small-town lawman solving a murder with the help of veterinarian Katharine Ross.
  • Seven Keys to Baldpate (1935), starring Gene Raymond in another remake of the Earl Derr Biggers thriller.
  • Lady Scarface (1941), with Judith Anderson chewing the scenery as a cruel mob boss.
  • Fast and Loose (1939), with Robert Montgomery and Rosalind Russell in one of the “bookseller” trilogy, each of which featured a different pair playing Joel and Garda Sloane.
  • The Verdict (1946), with Sydney Greenstreet and Peter Lorre solving a mystery in Victorian London.
  • Secrets of the French Police (1932); Gregory Ratoff is a mad hypnotist who runs a scam with Gwili Andre as the bogus “Tsar’s daughter”.
  • moonlightmurder1Moonlight Murder (1936), with Chester Morris taking time off from being Boston Blackie to investigate a murder case during a performance of Il Trovatore at the Hollywood Bowl.
  • Nancy Drew, Detective (1938), with Bonita Granville as the plucky teenage investigator.

Are any of these cherished films for you — or are any of them over-rated? Your comments are welcome.

 

 

The Greek Coffin Mystery, by Ellery Queen (1932)

The Greek Coffin Mystery, by Ellery Queen (1932)

n60581Author:

Ellery Queen is a fictional detective in the books by Ellery Queen … who is  a fictional writer.  The fictional writer whose name is on a set of novels from 1929 to 1971 was actually two people, cousins generally known as Frederic Dannay and Manfred Lee, whose joint Wikipedia entry is found here. As Wikipedia makes clear here, quite a few books ascribed to Ellery Queen were actually written by other authors; this one, however, is certainly the product of Dannay and Lee. Dannay also managed the affairs of Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine (the original version of this post erroneously suggested that it was Dannay and Lee in tandem), and the Ellery Queen name appears on the cover of many books of anthologized short stories reprinted from the magazine. Complicated, isn’t it? There’s also an old-time radio program, a series of vintage movies, a television series, comic books, a game or two, and even reference books about the character and the authors.

2633Publication Data:

This volume is the fourth Ellery Queen novel to be published by the cousins. The first nine books in the series each have a number of common features; there is a nationality in the title, here “Greek”; there is an introduction written by someone known only as “J.J. McC.”, now not considered canonical, and the famous “Challenge to the Reader”.  This challenge stops the action of the book and speaks directly to the reader, asserting that every piece of information necessary to solve the mystery is now in the reader’s hands. This is, in fact, the case; this volume is a strict-form puzzle mystery as I have elsewhere defined this term. One interesting conceit of this particular book is that each chapter has a single-word title; examination of the table of contents reveals that the initial letters of the chapter titles, considered acrostically, spell out “The Greek Coffin Mystery By Ellery Queen”.

The book was first published in 1932 by Frederick A. Stokes in the U.S. and a little later by Gollancz in the UK.  The first paperback edition is Pocket #179, seen at the head of this post. Many paperback editions exist; this book has only sporadically been out of print since its publication. It is now available in multiple e-book formats.

The Greek Coffin Mystery, 1960 - illus James Meese-1Although I have a VG copy of the first paper edition shown above, I actually used an e-book from an unknown source as my reference copy for this review (I found it in my files and have no idea where it came from, possibly as part of a gift of a bundle of e-books from a colleague); pagination is impossible to guarantee and I have chosen to not give page citations.

About this book:

Standard spoiler warning: What you are about to read may discuss in explicit terms the events of this murder mystery in GREAT detail. Please read no further if you wish to preserve your ignorance. You will also probably find here discussions of the content of other murder mysteries, perhaps by other authors, and a similar warning should apply.

IF YOU HAVE NOT READ THIS BOOK, STOP HERE AND GO READ IT BEFORE YOU RETURN. YOU WILL THANK ME. I can’t be any clearer — your first reading of this book should be unsullied by any knowledge of its contents, and the less you know in advance, the happier you will be. 

index-3_1The story begins with the death of wealthy Greek-American art dealer and connoisseur Gregor Khalkis; for once in a murder mystery, there’s nothing suspicious about the death. He’s been suffering from heart troubles for years that have left him blind and under the full-time care of a physician. It’s the disappearance of Khalkis’s will that is baffling everyone; five minutes before the funeral it was there, after the funeral it’s vanished. The house is searched, to no avail, and Mr. Woodruff, the family lawyer, calls in District Attorney Pepper. More searching, and no results. No secret passages or hidden compartments in the furniture or walls; no evidence that it was destroyed. Apparently the disappearance of the will is connected with its provisions, and someone’s desire to return to an earlier testamentary disposition of the Khalkis estate … but no one can figure out what happened. Finally Pepper calls in Ellery Queen, who deduces that the only possible location is inside the only object that’s left the house unsearched — Mr. Khalkis’s coffin. He convinces the authorities of the validity of his logic and they obtain permission to dig up the coffin. Unfortunately the coffin doesn’t contain the will. What it does contain is the strangled body of an ex-convict, a convicted forger named Grimshaw, jammed in on top of the late Mr. Khalkis. 

We soon meet the household and learn that Grimshaw had been admitted to a private interview with Khalkis shortly before their deaths. Khalkis has household staff (including the beautiful British secretary, Miss Brett, who might be romantically involved with Khalkis’s handsome young nephew Alan), relatives (including his mentally handicapped cousin Demmy, who acts as a kind of valet for the blind Mr. Khalkis) and the various employees of his art gallery and other business operations.

Ellery directs the activities of his father, Inspector Queen of the New York Police, with the assistance of DA Pepper, and a large group of officers immediately begin to learn everyone’s every movement. As is common in such fictional situations, it soon becomes apparent that most of the people in Khalkis’s life had recent acrimonious interactions with him, and many of them may well have had interactions with the deceased forger. Promptly upon the start of investigations, multi-millionaire Wall Street baron James Knox, friend of both the President and the late Mr. Khalkis, insists upon being briefed upon progress; Ellery announces that the case is solved. <gasp>

index-5_1A few chapters previously, the people around Ellery were baffled by his insistence on performing a number of experiments with the contents of a tea-urn in Khalkis’s office, and the surrounding used teacups, lemon, et cetera. He boils water, pours it out, measures amounts — no one understands what’s going on, and they think he’s losing his grip. As well, Ellery seems curiously interested in Mr. Khalkis’s neckties; he’d had some new ones delivered for the use of his handicapped cousin in executing his valeting duties. Ellery doesn’t explain until this point, when he reveals that, first of all, the details surrounding the neckties reveal that Mr. Khalkis has spontaneously regained his vision, and second, that two mysterious people who visited Khalkis in his study the night before his death were not actually two people, and that Khalkis had gone through an incredible rigamarole to make it seem as though two other people had been there. This idea, Ellery reveals, is the result of his analysis of tea-cups and tea water. And therefore — Khalkis murdered Grimshaw.

Immediately upon this revelation — about halfway through the book — two things happen. One is that Miss Brett reveals that, oopsie, she forgot to mention that the used teacups were differently arranged than when they were found by Ellery, and Knox reveals that there was indeed a third man in that meeting with Khalkis and Grimshaw.  How does he know?  Knox was the third man.

At this halfway point in the novel, Ellery’s house of logical cards collapses and he sinks into depression; this event actually affects the remainder of his career and all subsequent books that feature him. He determines that because he has revealed the results of his analysis and been disproven, he will never again speak about his investigations until he is absolutely, completely certain of the identity of the murderer (rather like Saul’s conversion on the road to Tarsus). Although it’s not referred to specifically in later volumes, his detective career is forever changed by this event; it also changes the way in which his work is presented. When you think about it, it’s not sensible for a detective to hide the progress of his investigations from the police; this situation was apparently set up by the authors to create a structure for future novels that would delay the solution until the end of the book.

Knox now starts the second half of the plot in motion.  He had been dickering with Khalkis for the right to purchase a Da Vinci painting that had previously been thought to have been destroyed. But Grimshaw had become involved by going to Knox, announcing that he had stolen the Da Vinci some years ago for Khalkis, and Khalkis had apparently been unable to pay him for his labours. Finally Khalkis had agreed to make out his will in favour of Grimshaw and in the interim gave him a promissory note. Khalkis, Grimshaw and Knox had all met and drunk tea on that fateful evening, and then some unknown person had tampered with the physical evidence in order to lead Ellery away from the truth. Ellery soon determines that that unknown person must logically have been in partnership with Grimshaw.

Knox refuses to hand over the Da Vinci and announces that he’ll deny having it in his possession — and that it’s a copy anyway. Ellery then realizes that his deduction of Khalkis having recovered his sight was also incorrect; instead, handicapped Demmy is revealed to be colour-blind. Ellery grimly acknowledges his mistakes and gets back to work on solving the case.

Events now progress more rapidly.  The investigation receives an anonymous tip that the manager of Khalkis’s art gallery, Gilbert Sloane, is actually Grimshaw’s brother. The police discover that an empty house in Khalkis’s neighbourhood was the temporary resting place of Grimshaw’s corpse (until the murderer had the bright idea of disposing of it in the coffin) and they discover a shred of the burned will in a furnace in the empty house, confirming that the missing will indeed left the huge Khalkis estate to Grimshaw. This means that Sloane will actually inherit through his brother; they find a key to the empty house concealed in the Sloane home. Everyone rushes to the Khalkis Gallery to arrest Sloane — and he’s been shot. Superficially it looks like suicide, but Ellery makes a deduction that proves it to be murder. And everything grinds to a halt, because Ellery cannot find a thread of the tapestry upon which to pull in order to make progress with the case.

index-221_1Miss Brent reveals herself to have been an agent of the British Museum, employed to track down the Da Vinci; she’s hired by Knox to help him with his executor’s duties on the Khalkis estate. And the British Museum is about to pull the lid off the case unless Ellery solves it in a hurry.  Soon, the missing promissory note shows up — half of it is used as the paper upon which a blackmail note is typed. The actual typing of this note is of interest; there’s a tiny typographical error that is shown to the reader but not further explained.

At about this point, the above-mentioned “Challenge to the Reader” breaks the flow of the action; you now have in your possession enough information to solve the mystery and identify Grimshaw’s partner and the murderer.  I will from this point on be reticent about what happens; I haven’t yet told you anything that would make any difference to your ability to solve the murder, since if you read the book everything will be available to you.  But henceforth, I will cut back drastically on my comments for fear of spoiling things for you.

It is safe to say, though, that there is a common theme in nearly all Ellery Queen stories that is repeated here; the false solution, then the true. At this point, Ellery makes an announcement about who is guilty of precisely what; this leads to a series of events that brings us to the final solution. Ellery has set a trap for the real killer, and I wager that you will be very, very surprised by the answer, which is revealed dramatically with Ellery being shot in the shoulder and the murderer dying in a hail of gunfire at the end of Chapter 33. Chapter 34 consists of Ellery recuperating from his wound and explaining everything, in great detail, to an assembly of suspects and investigators.

04b_GreekWhy is this book worth your time?

The year of publication of this book is 1932.  In 1932, Agatha Christie had published a mere dozen novels, but including one of the most difficult mysteries ever written (The Murder of Roger Ackroyd). Ngaio Marsh was two years away from her first book; Margery Allingham was at the beginning of her career; John Dickson Carr had not yet published a Gideon Fell or a Henry Merrivale novel; Anthony Berkeley had published a number of excellent books including 1929’s The Poisoned Chocolates Case — and the “Golden Age” mystery was in its early stages. It was not completely newborn; perhaps adolescent; still finding its way, outlining the ideas that define the form, the boundaries of the genre, its passions, its likes and dislikes, its enthusiasms and hatreds. S.S. Van Dine and Ronald Knox had both published sets of rules as to what detective stories should and should not be; clever writers like “Ellery Queen” were casting off the old strictures and extending the boundaries of the form.

This particular story has to be one of the most difficult strict-form puzzle mysteries ever written and, frankly, they don’t make ’em like this any more. This book has more sheer logic and detection in it by the halfway point than in the entire oeuvre of your average cozy author; and by the end of the novel, more difficult chains of logic than the entire oeuvre of ten cozy writers. This book was written at a time when readers did not cavil at being faced with an extremely difficult puzzle and it has, over the years, maintained its place as one of the finest examples of such a puzzle. I haven’t worked out the ramifications of this in great detail, but I’ll suggest that this is one of Queen’s top two books — the other being The Chinese Orange Mystery — and one of the top 25 puzzle mysteries ever written. Just don’t make me name the other 23, please!

When I’m analyzing a puzzle mystery, there’s a process I go through that is crucial to determining its level of quality. Simply put, once I know whodunnit, I go through the novel again from the murderer’s point of view and see if everything makes sense. And I think you would be surprised at how often things just do not make sense when I do that. For instance, I recently looked at a poorly-written mystery by Frances Crane, The Applegreen Cat. (My analysis is here.) Among other problems, the plot consisted of a mystery that was difficult from the point of view of the reader — but ridiculous from the point of view of the murderer, who apparently deliberately waited until the country house was filled with house guests before embarking upon a killing spree among the servants. Another example is an early novel of Harlan Coben’s whose name slips my mind along with most of the details. Three-quarters of the way through the book, the protagonist discovers that the murderer has a cabin  in the woods filled with evidence, and this provides everything needed to bring the book to a close. The problem is, as I realized even before reaching the end of the novel, no murderer in his right mind would have left all that tasty evidence in place, sitting in an empty cabin for anyone who happened by. It’s rather like one of those plots where the murderer has the detective at his mercy, but stops to deliver a complete detailed confession before disposing of his nemesis. It helps out the book a lot, but lowers the murderer’s IQ by 50 points in an instant.

If you go through the process of analyzing things from the murderer’s point of view, everything in this book continues to make perfect sense. The murderer’s motives are clear; they make sense and continue to make sense once you know what they are. The only thing that trips up the killer is a trap set by the detectives that is also based on something that the murderer needs to see happen. The tiny clues left by the murderer are tiny accidents; they aren’t taunts left by the killer, or foolish oversights, but something small and careless like closing a door when it shouldn’t have been closed, or not predicting that a character may confess something that is not in his best interests in order to cooperate with the police. And there are not many puzzle mysteries about which this can be said. Nothing depends on coincidence, chance, acts of God or ridiculous motivation. Just about the only logical flaw in the entire novel is the size of the fragment of the will that is found in the furnace of the empty house, and the fact that it contains precisely the information that is needed to move forward; this is a bit of a stretch, but, you know, it could happen. All the clues you need are fairly there, and the Challenge to the Reader is accurate.

The other part of this book that is beautifully crafted is the false trail that the reader is meant to follow. I read this book as a teenager and I remember the sense of exultation with which I came to the conclusion that the authors wished me to reach; I’d spotted the tiny clues, I’d noticed the snippets of dialogue, and I’d realized what they meant. I felt smart. By golly, this mystery business wasn’t so hard after all, I thought. And then I realized that I’d been well and truly fooled, and that was what the authors had meant to happen. Up until that point, I’d merely failed to solve the mystery, or I’d guessed sort of randomly at a possible solution. This time I’d tried to solve the mystery, and I’d been fooled. And it may well be this book that started me on a lifetime of challenging my wits against those of the author.

In short — this is one of the finest strict-form puzzle mysteries that you will ever have the pleasure of failing to solve. In the past, for the benefit of a friend who hasn’t yet had the pleasure of encountering this mystery, I’ve taken a cheap paperback and torn it in half at the point at which the Challenge to the Reader appears, in order to give my friend the chance to give this mystery the attention it deserves without the opportunity to spoil it by peeking. There are not many mysteries worth doing that with. If you enjoy the experience, and you see a cheap paperback copy go by, pay it forward for a friend.

Notes for the Collector:

As of this writing, AbeBooks has on offer a Good copy of the first edition, inscribed by Frederick Dannay to his sister-in-law, for $500, and two unsigned copies of the first for $236 and $250. The second edition will set you back $175, and a copy of the first UK from Gollancz is listed for about $60. I am aware of an interesting edition from International Readers League in 1933, with a street map and floor plan of the Khalkis house (like the ones reproduced here, which are also in the first paper edition), and Abe has a copy for $75.

Some crazy person on ViaLibri wants $500 for the Bestseller Mystery/Mercury edition of 1941, and I can only think that it has about $490 in cash tucked between the pages. Amereon reprinted this title in 2001 and I can’t think why this particular book is bringing prices in the $75 range for an undistinguished hardcover with no jacket.

In paper, the 1942 first paper edition from Pocket is quite collectible because it’s a low-numbered book in that pioneering series, collected by many, even though, as you can see from the illustration at the top of this post, the cover art is downright unattractive — muddy, unexciting and dull. (When you look at the gaudy but exciting cover of The French Powder Mystery from the same company at about the same time, you wonder if the publishers were trying to make the Greek Coffin look boring!) Mine is a relatively nice copy and what appears to be a similar one on Abe is listed for $20; I’ve seen many copies of this book and many of them appear to have vertical creases in the cover, rolling, etc. There is a Penguin greenback available, of which there are many collectors, and many other editions.

1808330There’s a Cardinal edition that has a great piece of “girlie leg art” on the cover and, for once, it actually depicts a scene from the book. One quirky favourite edition of mine has always been a uniform set of Signet paperbacks from the early 70s with a tightly-kerned Helvetica title and cover art of a pretty model posed within a box, holding an oversized prop that has something to do with the plot.  Possibly this has something to do with the fact that in many cases this was the first edition that passed through my hands; at this remove, they look quite camp. Your mileage may vary. The point is that, depending on what your budget and collector’s instincts might be, there’s something for you. My own recommendation would be the signed first, which is quite scarce with any signature, and for smaller budgets the best copy you can afford of the Pocket edition, unless you like “girlie leg art” in which case the Cardinal edition may suit you best.

2014 Vintage Mystery Bingo:

This 1932 volume qualifies as a Golden Age mystery; third under “D”, “Read a book already read by another challenger.” This volume was reviewed on February 17, 2014 at a blog called “Classic Mysteries”; the review is found here. For a chart outlining my progress, see below.

Vintage Golden Card 001