Welcome everybody to this month’s Crimes of the Century, looking at 1957.
Loads of movies this month! New player, B Noir Detour reviewed Crime of Passion, finding it of merely historical interest:
1957 is quite late in the classic noir cycle, and Crime of Passion illustrates not the ramping up of intensity but more the drop in quality and interest… In this less than thrilling tale for all actors concerned, Kathy does hold historical interest. In America of the 1950s, women were expected to quit their jobs — however rewarding or even vital to family finances they were. If Kathy is unsympathetic, her plight is at least understandable, and that’s what makes Crime of Passion noir rather than just a thriller.
Over to A Crime is Afoot for Alexander Mackendrick’s Sweet Smell of Success, a tale of a newspaper columnist using any means necessary to break up his sister’s relationship with a lowly jazz musician.
Brad reviewed Billy Wilder’s Christie adaptation Witness for the Prosecution at ahsweetmysteryblog, which sounds like a doozy:
First, we have three screenwriters, including the director himself, to add spice and humor to Christie’s dialogue. Then we have a tremendous cast, led by Charles Laughton as Sir Wilfred, Marlene Dietrich as Romaine, and, in his final screen role, Tyrone Power as Leonard Vole who raise the sordid machinations of this case into something more epic.
Our regular film columnist, John at Noirish, sent over three reviews this month, all of them good’uns.
First up, The Young Don’t Cry, which combines orphans with prison gangs (and also rattlesnakes):
One of this fine movie’s subtexts is the business about what makes a man a man. This was clearly a preoccupation of the writer Richard Jessup, whose script, based upon his own semi-autobiographical novel, drew from his experiences as an institutionalized orphan.
We don’t get a lot of Argentine crime on here, but La Casa del Ángel, directed by Leopoldo Torre Nilsson, sounds interesting:
The sense of noirishness is enhanced by Paz’s cinematography, which includes more by way of angled shots (especially up-shots) than I can recall seeing in any contemporaneous Hollywood film noir. Paz makes great use of shadows, too; indeed the cinematography is overall very dark. I wondered if this might be for the same reason that so many classic films noirs are full of shadows—it saves on sets if the audience can’t see the backgrounds, or lack thereof—and so on a hunch I fiddled with the brightness and contrast of a couple of the particularly shadowy sequences. Sure enough: no background set.
And finally to German-occupied France for what sounds like an incredibly dark story, Seven Thunders, in which a Dr Martout is apparently helping refugees escape the Nazis:
What Emile doesn’t know is that, far from aiding refugees to escape, Martout is robbing them of all their possessions, murdering them, and dissolving the bodies in quicklime in his cellar.
Grim stuff. And what’s James Robertson Justice doing in a film like that? A whole new perspective on ‘What’s the bleeding time?’
Now turn the lights back up for some reading.
John took a break from films to read Gil Brewer’s The Angry Dream (later reissued as The Girl from Hateville), and loved it:
It’s been a while since I’ve enjoyed a hardboiled pulp as much as I did this one. I started it with the intention of reading it for just ten or fifteen minutes before nodding off; in the event I finished it before, with shaky hand, putting the light out. It’s a tremendous helterskelter ride from start to finish.
John also read Daphne du Maurier’s The Scapegoat, in which lookalikes John and Jean swap places.
The setup’s obviously totally implausible, and du Maurier acknowledges this in various flashes of humor. (She also, to her credit in 1957, has Bela noticing that John is not Jean because the two are different lovers.) But, if she’s tongue-in-cheek about her premise, she’s by no means so in the novel itself, which is quite serious in its exploration of what we gradually realize are really two parts of the same personality: John’s a good guy and Jean’s a toad but, to become a complete person, John could maybe do with a bit of Jean in him.
Metaphorically? (Sorry, couldn’t resist that).
Brad reviewed Helen McCloy’s The Slayer and the Slain, ‘definitely the ‘best butter’ according to the cover.
Harry Vaughan, teaches psychology at a New England University and has a bright future as an academic and a researcher. Yet, when an uncle dies and leaves him a fortune, Harry chucks his job and moves back to his hometown of Clearwater, Virginia to raise horses and renew his acquaintance with the beautiful Celia Arabin, the one who got away and ended up marrying another man.
Kate at crossexaminingcrime does her usual thorough analysis of Christie’s 4:50 from Paddington, looking at the various women in the story:
Lucy’s initial description does seem too good to be true, making her some sort of wonder woman even. Despite taking a ‘First in Mathematics at Oxford’ her love of money and of people ‘with minds less brilliant than her own’ lead her into becoming an expert housekeeper/ domestic worker who builds up such a reputation that she can demand high prices for her services, which home owners can have for 2-4 weeks maximum.
According to Moira at Clothes in Books, Nicholas Blake phoned in his publishing-mystery End of Chapter,
Half the plotlines seemed unresolved at the end of the book, despite Blake freely giving rather stern and unhelpful advice to everyone about their love-lives and futures […] As a book of 1957, it was refreshing to read that the older characters have no time for the young people of the day, who do not know the difference between ‘uninterested’ and ‘disinterested’, and who frown a lot:
How very stern the young are, thought Nigel.
Bernadette at Reactions to Reading reacted to Margaret Millar’s An Air That Kills.
The book does a great job of introducing all the players and making the reader suspect them all. It does however get bogged down in details or irrelevancies a few times though I can’t cite examples without giving away more of the plot than is my want. The thing that bugged me more though was the depiction of women. It’s 1957 so I would have liked to see a female writer thinking a little more of her gender than them being universally obsessed with getting their man and/or having a baby. Of course it’s reasonable that a character be so obsessed, it just would have been nice if not every female character was depicted that way or pitied for their unmarried/childless state.
Creepiest cover award has to go to Mary Kelly’s Dead Man’s Riddle, reviewed by Bev at My Reader’s Block:
The murder had taken place during the school’s Rectoral election, a night when students run amok dressed in animal heads, divided into factions, dumping water on one another, setting fire to anything of little value that might be hanging about, throwing fish at each other (???), and generally causing mass confusion throughout the university grounds. Who’s to say that the murderer didn’t take advantage of the melee, don a red fox head or a blue boar head and sneak into the library where the dead man was found?
John at Pretty Sinister Books dusted off Rex Stout’s Three for the Chair, a trio of Nero Wolfe stories:
The best of the lot is the final story in the book “Too Many Detectives”. It’s the second story in which Wolfe is out of his element and the safety of his brownstone on 35th Street. This time he and Archie have traveled to Albany where they and several other private detectives are required to give testimony in a hearing on illegal wiretapping practices among licensed private detective agencies in New York state. We learn that in 1956 there were 590 licensed PIs in New York, and 423 of them were in New York City. That’s not counting the employees who at the time required no license.
John followed up with Berkeley Gray’s Conquest after Midnight, which, and I could have told him this from the cover, was a bit of a potboiler….
There is a rich master criminal (a prominent member of Parliament who owns an independent political newspaper) who devises a preposterous plot in order to remove a former business partner he cheated and who is now planning to expose him. Does he threaten him with violence or shoot him dead? Does he hire a thug to beat the guy up or otherwise scare him into silence? No, the M.P. pretends to be interested in starting a private zoo, buys a lion, and hires a couple of men to let the lion loose on his enemy who he knows takes an evening stroll.
Not to be outdone in the grim-faced-man-in-a-trilby stakes, I reviewed Richard Goyne’s The Missing Minx, in which two sleepy villages on the Welsh border are woken up by the arrival and subsequent disappearance of the minx (also pictured).
Tracy at Bitter Tea and Mystery went for a thriller, with Alistair Maclean’s The Guns of Navarone, in which a motley band of soldiers go commando trying to destroy a German gun emplacement.
I don’t know how this book succeeds at being suspenseful. It seems fairly clear from the beginning that the team will succeed to some extent in their goal. This reader assumed that there must a traitor who provides additional tension. But even as the book seems to have a very obvious plot line, it still kept me reading eagerly. The author throws enough spanners into the works to ratchet up the tension and it never got dull.
To another island, over at In Search of the Classic Mystery, for Gladys Mitchell’s The Twenty-Third Man,
Welcome to the island of Hombres Meurtos, located… um, not sure really. I guess it’s near the Canary Islands, but did they have bandits (as in traditional Mexican-style banditos) in 1957? Regardless, it’s six days voyage out of Liverpool. You work it out.
Her characters seem to belong to a different reality. While some Golden Age writers are criticised for bland characters, Mitchell seems to go to the opposite extreme. Witness here the child Clement, whose parents have raised him as an experiment to have no inhibitions. Seriously.
Over to New York. Jose Ignacio was very glad to discover Chester Himes’ A Rage in Harlem (originally titled For Love of Imabelle with talk of ‘lovely dusky bodies’ on the cover).
…an exceptionally funny dark comedy. Despite having a deeply realistic tone, we will find many situations that verge on the absurd, but will always seem credible, and the end result is excellent. The story keeps the right balance between the absurdity in its purest form and an exacerbated realism. In addition, it is plagued with some memorable characters who, I’m sure, will remain in our minds for a long time.
Bev returned with Henry Wade’s The Litmore Snatch, which…
…surprisingly does not involve a murder. I can’t tell you how relieved I was for that. As soon as ten-year-old Ben Litmore was “snatched” on his way home from a boxing match, I feared the worst and I don’t do well with the murders of children (or children in danger in any way, really). So I was very happy to see the ransom paid and Ben returned to his family at about the mid-point of the book. It allowed me to settle down and try to identify the culprit–but that proved to be more challenging than expected.
Moira’s second 1957 mystery was Elizabeth Ferrars’ Furnished for Murder,
Meg… has just let her cottage to a mysterious and sinister stranger. Meanwhile, there has been an unexpected inheritance, a failed love affair, a divorcee returning, and a man who might be an impostor. Everyone talks to each other in short brittle sentences, and they are forever arriving somewhere and then leaving shortly afterwards. There are worrying phonecalls, a strange reflection which means people can peer into each other’s rooms, and a lot of discussion of potential wickedness… As a book of 1957: there was the ranting on income tax, people still pleased that butter is off the ration, and a discussion of the law on furnished tenancies. The wonders of penicillin are still very new.
Bev’s final 1957 book was Gownsman’s Gallows by Katharine Farrer, an Oxford mystery…
I suppose, strictly speaking, that this is true. But nearly all of the action takes place in France and has very little to do with the halls of academe. For those of us who enjoy a good academic mystery, it starts off very promising. Tim and his brother Nigel are coming back to Oxford in Tim’s ancient car, traveling along a seldom frequented road when Tim runs over a body. The man is already dead, but Tim is absolutely convinced that he’ll be found at fault and very likely lose his place at Oxford. The brothers then set off on their merry little bout of deception and disappearance. Meanwhile, we meet the apparently absent-minded and somewhat dotty head of Pentecost College. He’s all an academic in these stories ought to be–with a streak of shrewdness underneath. I was all set to settle down for a nice bit of mysterious academic shenanigans. And then…we go traipsing off to France and we drift into neo-Resistance plots and pseudo-plots.
Another bumper month! Thanks everyone 🙂