TV Review: Bulldog Drummond & Burke’s Law

TV Review: Bulldog Drummond & Burke’s Law

A couple more episodes from my DVD collection.

Bulldog Drummond was created by H.C. “Sapper” McNeile in 1920, after a prototype police officer version failed to get traction.  Mr. Drummond was an independently wealthy gentleman adventurer and veteran of World War One who got bored and put out a newspaper advertisement looking for excitement.  This being an action novel, he got it.

Bulldog Drummond

There were a bunch of novels, and eventually stage plays and movies based on the character.  Rousing stuff, but nowadays the novels are somewhat out of favor for xenophobia and anti-Semitism that is overboard even by the standards of the time they were written.  The TV episode is actually one episode of the anthology series Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. Presents.

In “The Ludlow Affair,” Bulldog Drummond (Robert Beatty) is approached by the wife of an old friend, the titular Ludlow.  After being shot at and receiving a threatening phone call,  Drummond learns that his friend, a scientist, had developed a new antibiotic treatment with the help of his wife and another lab assistant.  The treatment would be worth millions if sold, but Ludlow planned to release it to the world as a public service.  And that’s when he got kidnapped.

Drummond immediately suspects something is up from the way the wife keeps bringing up how much money the formula is worth.   With the aid of his manservant Kelly (Michael Ripper), Drummond  launches an elaborate scheme in which he steals the formula himself to smoke out the kidnapper, Mr. Caselli.  By the end, Ludlow is rescued and the crooks are being led away by the police, even though the Inspector has a feeling Drummond should be arrested too.

Bulldog Drummond does show a rather flexible approach to ethics in this episode, and if I were not aware of his background, would have assumed him to be a mostly reformed crook.  It’s okay, but I can see why this didn’t become a series on its own.

Burke’s Law was an early 1960s series about Amos Burke (Gene Barry), a millionaire who was for some reason a captain of detectives and head of the Homicide Division of the Los Angeles Police Department.  He was chauffeured to crime scenes in a Rolls Royce.  Each episode would be titled “Who Killed (Insert Name Here)?” and featured a bevy of guest stars as quirky suspects.

Burke's Law

“Who Killed Jason Shaw?” begins with a rather odd young woman named Lucy Brewer coming into a hotel room she’s rented to find a body in the shower.  She’s about to call the police when she notices a rich spread of food, and decides to eat first.  then take a nap, then eat some more.  It’s several hours later when Burke receives a female visitor who intends to stay with him, only to be interrupted mid-argument by the notice of the dead body.  (The visitor is not seen again in the episode.)

It turns out that Lucy was paid to rent the room in her name so that some wealthy men could use it overnight, and she could then use it the next day.  Lucy didn’t ask any questions, and is not seen again in the episode.  The dead body is Jason Shaw, a wealthy businessman.  Eventually it is discovered that he participated in a high-stakes poker game with several eccentric rich men; an obsessive wine collector, a man who breeds flesh-eating plants (Burgess Meredith), a shipbuilder with a thing for Japanese fashion and experimental music, (who happens to be an old friend of Burke’s) and a hostile used car dealer (Keenan Wynn).

Meanwhile, Burke has a passive-aggressive interaction with the plant breeder’s daughter, a sculptor going under an assumed name so she can prove herself without Daddy’s money; while his extremely efficient sidekick Detective Tim Tillson (Gary Conway) starts falling for Shaw’s buttoned-up but very attractive secretary.

There’s way too many characters crammed into a half hour, as evidenced by the one woman simply vanishing from the story altogether after her first and only scene.  It also has an overly high quirky quotient–any one of the guest characters could carry an episode by themselves, but all together they just clash.

I suspect this series would be watchable mostly for the Who’s Who of guest stars, rather than for plot or characterization.

TV Review: Alfred Hitchcock Presents

TV Review: Alfred Hitchcock Presents

This half-hour anthology program ran from 1955-1962, when it was replaced by The Alfred Hitchcock Hour.  The series concentrated on suspense stories, with rare supernatural elements (and even these usually explained by the end of the story.)  Mr. Hitchcock himself would appear as the host to introduce the episode, crack a dry joke or two, and provide an afterword.

The production values were high, and the show had some cracking good episodes, two of which I was able to watch on DVD.

“The Cheney Vase”:  Darren McGavin plays Lyle Endicott, a museum worker whose lack of work ethic gets him fired in the first minute of the story.  By chance, he learns that Miss Cheney (Patricia Collinge), a wheelchair-bound ceramic artist, is losing her personal assistant for several months, while the museum director that fired Lyle is also going on a long trip out of touch.    While Miss Cheney is not a particularly wealthy woman, she does own a rare vase her archaeologist father discovered.

Darren McGavin as Lyle Endicott in "The Cheney Vase"
Darren McGavin as Lyle Endicott in “The Cheney Vase”

Lyle has a letter of recommendation forged so that he can move in as Miss Cheney’s assistant.  His plan is to gradually isolate her from the outside world  until he can find out where the Cheney Vase is hidden, then steal it.  By the time Miss Cheney realizes what’s going on, it may already be too late….

Mr. McGavin does an excellent job as Lyle, a man who complains that things never go his way while sabotaging himself with negligent behavior.  He puts on the fake charm, avoiding revealing his true self even to his lover until he’s sure she can’t do anything to stop him.

“The Sorcerer’s Apprentice”:  Sadini the Great, a carnival magician, discovers a boy lying outside his trailer in Toledo, Ohio.   Soft-hearted as carnies go, Sadini brings the boy, Hugo, inside.  Sadini’s wife and lovely assistant Irene, is displeased, although she warms up to Hugo a bit when he calls her an angel.

Diana Dors and David J. Stewart as Irene and Vincent Saidini in "The Sorcerer's Apprentice"
Diana Dors and David J. Stewart as Irene and Vincent Saidini in “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice”

It seems that Hugo is developmentally disabled, and escaped from a “home” where he was possibly mistreated.  He has difficulty distinguishing reality from illusion, something that becomes especially obvious when he watches the devilish-appearing Sadini saw his wife in half as part of the magic act.

Irene, who is having an affair with high-wire artist George, comes up with a plan to have Hugo murder Sadini, supposedly to free Irene from his Satanic powers and allow Hugo to inherit the sorcerer’s wand.  This plan goes horribly right, with an ending that was considered “too gruesome” by Revlon, the sponsor of the series.

Thus, this Robert Bloch-penned episode was not seen in regular network broadcast, but only in syndication, and fell into the public domain.  You can find free versions of it on the internet.   If you like EC Comics, you should really enjoy this episode.

TV Review: The Adventures of Ellery Queen–The Hanged Acrobat

TV Review: The Adventures of Ellery Queen–The Hanged Acrobat

Ellery Queen was the pseudonym of Frederic Dannay and Manfred Bennington Lee, and also the main character of their long-running mystery series.  He was an intellectual, and a bit of a snob, who often helped his father, a New York City police inspector, solve murders.  The series was noted for its fair play methods, with a point in the story where the reader is told that they have all the necessary clues to solve it before Mr. Queen gives the explanation.

The Adventures of Ellery Queen

Like other mystery series before it, there was a television adaptation, starting in 1950.  I have one episode on DVD, “The Hanged Acrobat.”  This was released on the Dumont network, and featured Richard Hart as Ellery Queen.

After a brief introduction revealing that Mr. Queen once had a summer job at a carnival,  and thus he stopped at one on his way back from somewhere, we go to a small carnival with a gyrating “coochie dancer” dressed in what was for 1950 a pretty revealing outfit.  While the barker extols her exotic talents, we see the dancer chewing gum with a bored expression on her face, and scratching her leg the moment the audience isn’t looking.

Louise (the dancer) also runs the milk bottle stand (knock the bottles down with a softball, get a prize) since the carnival is rather short-handed.  It’s here she meets Ellery Queen, and confesses that she’s more interesting in being a trapeze performer, and has been training for that.

At this point, the female half of the current trapeze act turns up dead, hanging from a noose in their tent.  The knot of the noose is a specialty tie usually found on cattle ranches, where a roustabout named Tex used to work.  Tex was also the last person to see the trapeze artist alive when they went for drinks together.

However, Ellery quickly learns that Tex has taught that knot to several other carnival workers, and the trapeze artist was strangled to death before being hanged, in a most unusual way.  Was the killer Tex?  Hugo, the grieving husband? Louise, who will be promoted to the high act?  Or is it the Colonel, the carnival owner who used to be a strongman and still has impressive gripping power?  Maybe the bumbling sheriff, who seems awfully interested in having this case closed without outside interference?

There’s not really a lot of mystery here, and most long-time fans will be able to figure out the culprit slightly before Ellery does.  The story is padded out with Ellery being tied and gagged so that the killer can proceed with their plans.  It’s a so-so show, with the best performance being Louise as the cynical and worldly-wise character who still has just a sliver of romance left in her soul.

Book Review: Kitty Genovese

Book Review: Kitty Genovese: A True Account of a Public Murder and Its Private Consequences by Catherine Pelonero

Disclaimer:  I received this book as a Goodreads giveaway on the premise that I would review it.

Kitty Genovese

I am not quite old enough to have any firsthand memories of the coverage of the March 13, 1964 murder of Kitty Genovese in Kew Gardens, a quiet neighborhood of Queens, New York City.  Certainly my parents would not have discussed the more sordid details of the case where I could hear.    By the time I graduated high school, I knew the vaguest outline of the case, as it demonstrated the “bystander effect.”

It was, and is a notorious case precisely because of that bystander effect; the crime was committed in the hearing and sight of many of Ms. Genovese’s neighbors, and the final assault was in the hallway leading to a friend’s apartment, a friend who refused to open the door.  For various reasons, many understandable,  the witnesses did not intervene beyond one person shouting at the man, and the police were not properly called until much too late.

The first chapter is a description of the crime itself, as pieced together from the murderer’s confession, witness testimony and police investigation.  This is followed by an account of the initial investigation, then the book moves to biographies of both Kitty Genovese and her killer, Winston Moseley.  After that, the account moves forward in a more linear fashion through the police investigation, and the press pieces that exploded the case onto the world stage.

The section on Mr. Moseley’s trial is perhaps the least interesting part–it’s largely repeating of testimony saying things already covered in earlier chapters.  The defense tried to get an insanity verdict, but although Winston Moseley clearly had something wrong with him, the jury decided he knew what he did was illegal and could have chosen not to kill.

There’s a bit of excitement when Mr. Moseley escapes from Attica in 1968 and Buffalo is terrorized for three days.

The remainder of the book is about the continuing legacy of the Kitty Genovese case, including the institution of the 911 system to make it easier to call the police when you suspect a crime or other emergency is happening.   One thing not mentioned in the book is that the case plays a role in the Watchmen comic book series; it spurs Rorschach to take an active role fighting crime, and his mask is cut from cloth meant for Kitty’s dress.

Much of this material has been covered in previous books, but this volume includes the revisionist view that emerged in the 1990s that the stories of the witnesses’ apathy were deliberately exaggerated by the police and media.  The author finds this view suspect, more of an attempt to shift blame than an honest rethinking.

Other issues also are discussed.  The possible effects of racism on Winston Moseley’s psyche, for example (he was black, Kitty Genovese was white.)  For those who are easily triggered, rape and domestic violence are discussed.

There’s a spread of black and white photographs in the center (be aware some of the building photos are much more recent and may be slightly misleading.)  There is a bibliography (and some other media sources), and an index.

Due to the nature of the content, I would recommend this to no lower than senior high students, although younger teens with morbid tastes (like mine at that age) will find it interesting as well.  I would most recommend this book to true crime readers who don’t already have a volume on Kitty Genovese, and students of psychology.

Movie Review: The Miracle Rider

Movie Review: The Miracle Rider

It is 1935 in the Panhandle area of Texas, home to the Ravenhead Tribe Indian Reservation.    The Ravenheads are a peaceful, hardworking tribe.  Sadly, their land is secretly situated on top of the largest deposit of X-94, an ore with tremendous explosive power, in the world.  Somehow, a white man named Zaroff (Charles Middleton) has learned of this and has been secretly mining the X-94 while posing as an oil driller and ranch owner.

The Miracle Rider

If Zaroff could just get the Ravenheads out of the reservation, he could move in openly and become the most powerful mine owner in the world.  To this end, Zaroff tries to scare the natives off their land with a string of bizarre incidents attributed to the evil Firebird spirit.  He is aided in this by one of the tribe, Longboat (Bob Kortman).  It seems that Longboat is not full-blooded, and if this secret was known to the tribe, he could never become chief.

Good thing Texas Ranger Tom Morgan (Tom Mix) is on the case!  A long-time friend of the Ravenheads since his father died protecting them from squatters, Tom is swift to realize that the events are not supernatural.  He acts to protect Ruth (Joan Gale), a murdered chief’s daughter, while investigating the conspiracy.

Early on, Tom is misled into believing Emil Janss (Edward Hern),  a merchant who wants to sell some unprofitable land he owns to the government for a new reservation, is behind the attacks and killings.  Can Tom unravel the tangled web to reveal the truth before the Ravenheads lose their homes?

The Miracle Rider is a fifteen-part movie serial produced by Mascot Pictures in 1935.  It was the last film work by Tom Mix.  While he was still a big box office draw, as he had been in the silent era, Mr. Mix was getting long in the tooth and had nagging injuries that slowed him down.  He still did many of his own stunts in this serial, but you can see him moving stiffly from time to time.

While there are science fiction elements in the story, they swiftly fade out.  The solar-powered heat ray is never used again after the first installment, and the Firebird, a radio-controlled ultralight aircraft, is destroyed only a few episodes in.  That leaves only X-94 itself, and the explosions never live up to the scale the dialogue says they should.  On the other hand, the Western genre bits stay all the way, and there’s plenty of exciting horse chases, gunplay and fistfights.

Typical of its era, the treatment of Native Americans is dubious at best.  The first installment opens with American heroes Daniel Boone, Davy Crockett and Buffalo Bill Cody trying to honor Indian territory, only to have greedier white men go and steal the land anyway, leading to war.  Tom Morgan’s father is cast in this mold as well, and it’s clear that Tom is meant to be the spiritual successor of the other heroes.

Tom and the good guy Indian agent Christopher Adams (Edward Earle) behave as paternalistic protectors of the Ravenheads, who are superstitious, easily panicked and speak (except Ruth) in a vaudeville “Injun” dialect.  Naturally, all of the Ravenheads with major speaking parts are played by white actors in makeup.  Longboat is referred to as a “half-breed” and this is the major motivation for his villainous actions.

But still, there’s some rollicking action, a bunch of plot twists, and a couple of good cliffhangers (even if a couple have resolutions that are obvious cheats.)  The antics of Tony, Tom’s preternaturally intelligent horse, are a hoot.  Watch it with your kids, but prepare for some rather pointed questions afterwards.

Manga Review: Vinland Saga, Book Two

Manga Review: Vinland Saga, Book Two by Makoto Yukimura

To recap for those of you who haven’t read the review of Book One, Vinland Saga is set in the early 12th Century, the time of the Vikings.  Our protagonist is Thorfinn, son of Thors, who serves in the war band of Askeladd.  Askeladd murdered Thors, and Thorfinn serves the wily warrior for the sole purpose of one day getting revenge in a fair duel.

Vinland Saga, Book Two

In this volume, the action shifts to the British Isles, and the war of King Sweyn Forkbeard against King Ethelred the Unready.  While Ethelred himself has fled, the city of London stands fast, largely due to the presence of Thorkell the Tall on their side.  Thorkell is a mighty man who hopes to perish in battle against a truly worthy foe, so that he might enter Valhalla with honor.  He switched sides to fight against the Northmen, because they were the tougher opponents!

Askeladd sends the relatively tiny lad Thorfinn in to kill Thorkell, and although it doesn’t work, Thorkell is impressed enough to want to fight Thorfinn again.  Sweyn decides to consolidate his rule over the rest of the country, and appoints his sickly son Canute (who’s the blond on the cover) to handle London’s siege.

Things don’t go as planned for just about everyone, and soon Askeladd’s band is in possession of Canute, and being chased by Thorkell’s warriors across the countryside.  Askeladd is forced to resort to one of the aces up his sleeve, a shocking secret from his past.

There’s a bonus story about Thorfinn’s sister Ylva dealing with the loss of her brother and father, and a chapter of “For Our Farewell Is Near”, about a samurai dying of illness .

There’s plenty of action and violence in this volume, and Askeladd’s idea of “mercy” is a cruel one by modern standards.  Some readers may also be turned off by the alcoholic priest who is not very good at explaining theology.  And probably the real Canute wasn’t that pretty.

However, it’s got good art, interesting characters and a setting that appeals to me, so I recommend this to fans of Viking stories, and students of English history.

Book Review: Blood Aces

Book Review: Blood Aces: The Wild Ride of Benny Binion, the Texas Gangster who Created Vegas Poker by Doug J. Swanson

Disclaimer:  I received this book as part of a Goodreads giveaway in the expectation that I would review it.  This was an Advance Uncorrected Proof copy, and there will be changes to the final product.

Blood Aces

As the subtitle indicates, this is a biography of Benny Binion, who was born in a tiny town in Texas in 1904 to a horse trader’s family, and rose through moxie, violence and crime to be a beloved fixture of Las Vegas.  Like many gangsters, Mr. Binion’s life makes for colorful reading, full of narrow escapes, famous names and death.

The picture painted of Dallas in the 1930-40s is not a flattering one.  Mr. Binion started in the numbers racket, and eventually managed to break into the lucrative and more “respectable” dice gambling world.  He was perhaps a victim of his own success.  That and somebody kept trying to kill one of his major rivals,  Herbert Noble, and everyone was pretty sure Mr. Binion was behind it.

So Benny Binion had to light out for Las Vegas, where gambling was legal and eventually became the owner of the Horseshoe casino, best known for its “no-limit” dice games.   Later he also became the founder of the World Series of Poker.

Like many gangsters, Benny Binion was a good friend to those he liked, and generous to the disadvantaged.  But get on his wrong side, and he did not stint on the anger.  As he got older,  the people of Las Vegas preferred to remember his good side.

Since Mr. Binion tended to lie a lot, and quite a few allegations were never proved, the author has had to rely on secondary and unreliable sources for much of the story.  After lighting out for Las Vegas, the only thing Mr. Binion was ever convicted on was tax evasion.  But there sure were a lot of people he didn’t like that wound up dead under suspicious circumstances.

There’s also asides on various people who also affected circumstances in Dallas or Las Vegas, such as Howard Hughes, who almost inadvertently changed the way casinos were owned just so he could hole up in his room in peace.

There are black and white photos at the beginning of the chapters, end notes sourcing the quotations, and a selected bibliography.  The index is not in the uncorrected proof, but should be in place for the final product (scheduled for August 2014.)

I did not know about most of the information in this book, particularly the bits set in Texas.  It’s a good book for true crime fans, and will have local interest for people in Las Vegas and Dallas.  it certainly makes a change from Chicago gangsters!

Anime Review: Kill la Kill

Anime Review: Kill la Kill

In the indefinite future, Ryuko Matoi is the delinquent daughter of a mad scientist who arrives home after a long time away at school to find him murdered with one blade of a giant scissors.  The killer, too far away to identify, has the other blade.  Ryuko vows vengeance.

Kill la Kill

In the course of her investigation, Ryuko comes to Honnouji Academy, a school with a rigid social structure based on what uniforms the students are allowed to wear, from the powerless zero-star students, to the three-starred Student Council whose “Goku Uniforms” greatly enhance their superhuman abilities.  At the top of the pyramid is Satsuki Kiryuuin, a cold and tyrannical girl who seems to know something about Ryuko’s quest.

Ryuko meets the very…special zero-star student Mako Makanshoku, who immediately decides that Ryuko is her new best friend (and Ryuko winds up bunking with the Makanshoku family.)  Ryuko also meets a number of one-star students, who she can easily beat up even without special clothing.  The two-star boxing club captain, on the other hand, is easily able to defeat Ryuko.  Being a bit brighter than many shounen heroes, Ryuko retreats.

Back at the ruins of her house, Ryuko stumbles across the insanely powerful uniform she will name Senketsu.  It’s sentient, and forces itself on her in a very disturbing scene.  They don’t get along at first, but Senketsu gives Ryuko the power she needs to return and defeat the boxer, declaring her intention to beat some answers out of Satsuki.

The first half or so of the series is Ryuko battling her way up the opponent ladder to get a good shot at Satsuki.  Then she (and the audience) finally get some answers as to what’s really going on, and the scale of the battles enlarge.  There’s much more at stake than one man’s murder or who gets to be top dog at a high school.

This Studio Trigger production is by many of the people who created Tengen Toppen Gurren Lagaan and is similarly over the top.  It’s also a homage to the work of Go Nagai, with Cutey Honey being an obvious influence throughout, and shades of Devilman coming in towards the end.

In addition to rather heavy violence, the series is kind of raunchy, with frequent nudity and some skeevy sexual molestation (mostly by the main villain.)  The nudity does serve a thematic purpose, as one of the running motifs is the relationship of people and their clothing, and the meaning of fashion.

If you can get past that, the series is a lot of fun with some great jokes and exciting action.

Book Review: Weird Golf: 18 Tales of Fantastic, Horrific, Scientifically Impossible, and Morally Reprehensible Golf

Book Review: Weird Golf: 18 Tales of Fantastic, Horrific, Scientifically Impossible, and Morally Reprehensible Golf by Dave Donelson

Disclosure: I received this book through a Firstreads giveaway in the expectation that I would review it.

Weird Golf

To make where I’m coming from clearer, I’m not a sports fan, and in specific not a golf fan. I’ve played just enough golf to know the game doesn’t appeal to me as a player, and I don’t believe I have ever watched an entire match on TV. However, I’m a big fan of “strange sports stories” which blend a real-life sport with fantastic elements.

As you might gather, this is a single-author anthology which is exclusively about golf. Thus, the changes are rung by introducing different unusual elements, not all impossible. It’s double-spaced for easy reading.

The best single story is “Grand Slam”, where a veteran golf writer (much like the author) realizes there’s something more unusual than most about an up and coming golfer. The ending’s very predictable, but the research is good.

Mr. Donelson appears to have been his own editor/proofreader, as there are a couple of “relies on spellchecker” errors.

And then there is the story “Superhero Grudge Match”, in which Superman and Batman compete to join a pro-am golf tournament. I was very surprised to not see a fanfic disclaimer, or an indication that Mr. Donelson got permission to use the characters for his book.

It really felt like the writer hadn’t done the research on the comic book characters nearly as well as he’d researched Pebble Beach. The story references some current events that might have made the business pages, but the Batman and Robin combo used were clearly the ones from the 1960s TV series. The characterizations are closest to the Silver Age “World’s Finest” comic books, in which Superman, Batman or both suddenly start acting dickishly for reasons given at the end of the story. Except that this time they’re dickish for the sole purpose of winning a golf game.

Notably, though both heroes end up cheating during the match, neither of them uses the skills/powers that would allow them to be freakishly good at golf. As a comic book fanfic reader, I have to say it’s not very good.

I would only recommend this book to people looking for a gift their golf-mad relative probably doesn’t have already. It’s a light read, suitable for rainy days and waiting for tee times.

Book Review: One For the Money

Book Review: One for the Money by Janet Evanovich

Disclaimer: I received this book (and the DVD of the movie) as part of a Goodreads giveaway in the expectation that I would review it.

One for the Money

Stephanie Plum is an unemployed lingerie buyer in Trenton, New Jersey.  Her mother pressures her to take an office job at her cousin’s bail bond business.  Turns out that job’s already taken, but there’s a bounty hunter position open.  Having nothing better to do, Stephanie goes for the assignment.

As the first book in the series, this holds together pretty well. Stephanie Plum makes some believable rookie mistakes (but unlike some other hardboiled mystery protagonists, does *not* have sex with the suspect) while also showing some flashes of qualities that would make her a decent bounty hunter once she’s got some experience under her belt. As a solo book it’s a teensy unsatisfying, as there are some characters that are obviously setups for future volumes.

The movie is notably much “prettier” than the book, playing up the romantic comedy aspects. For example, movie Stephanie’s outfits are much less eye-hurting than the ones described in the book.  Also, book Stephanie’s apartment is pretty much down to the bare walls as she’s hocked everything for food and rent, while movie Stephanie’s apartment is tastefully decorated.   Updating it to 2011 does have the salutary effect of giving Stephanie a cell phone which cuts some tedious shenanigans with her landline in the book.

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