Mademoiselle Fifi (1944)

US / 69 minutes / bw / RKO Dir: Robert Wise Pr: Val Lewton Scr: Josef Mischel, Peter Ruric Story: “Mademoiselle Fifi” (1882) and “Boule de Suif” (1880) by Guy de Maupassant Cine: Harry Wild Cast: Simone Simon, John Emery, Kurt Kreuger, Alan Napier, Helen Freeman, Jason Robards (i.e., Jason Robards Sr.), Norma Varden, Romaine Callender, Fay Helm, Edmund Glover, Charles Waldron, Alan Ward, Lillian Bronson, Mayo Newhall, Violette Wilson.

I’d seen a brief description somewhere of this movie that made me think it might be an intriguing piece of historical borderline noir. That didn’t prove to be the case, although there’s a certain amount of noirishness late in the proceedings—enough, anyway, to satisfy this site’s notoriously lax standards.

It’s 1870, and France is under occupation by the Prussians. Far too many of the French are collaborating with the occupiers, and Father Moran (Waldron), the elderly priest of the little town of Cleresville, refuses to ring the church bell until a Frenchman has the guts to strike back against the invaders.

Simone Simon as Elisabeth.

This pisses off the local garrison, notably Lt. von Eyrick (Kreuger), nicknamed Mademoiselle Fifi by his fellow officers because of his habit of saying “Fi, fi donc” to express impatience. (The French phrase doesn’t translate easily, except as “Fie, fie, then”—not exactly yer colloquial.)

Cut to Rouen, where a coach is about to leave for Dieppe, with Cleresville as one of its stops. Aboard are a mixed bag of Continue reading

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book: The Haunted Hotel (1879) by Wilkie Collins

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A Collins novel that’s deservedly among his lesser-known pieces yet is still thoroughly entertaining, this combines mystery with the supernatural to generally good effect.

All London is aghast when the highly eligible Herbert John Westwick, First Baron Montbarry, chooses to dump his long-time fiancee, the sweet Agnes Lockwood, and marry the Countess Narona, a continental of dubious reputation. Off the couple go on honeymoon, accompanied by Baron Rivar, supposedly her brother but, according to scandalized gossip, in reality her lover. By the time this odd trio settle down for a while in a crumbling palazzo in Venice, complete with an English maid and a courier, it’s widely bruited that the marriage is already on the rocks thanks to the countess’s presumed adultery and her husband’s extreme tightfistedness.

All of this we learn from Continue reading

book: Good Morning, Darkness (2004) by Ruth Francisco

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Laura Finnegan, breathtakingly beautiful in the manner that makes men feel protective of her, seems to be an entirely blameless, utterly admirable individual. We get an inkling that perhaps this view is simplistic when we learn that Laura is looking forward to seeing the pain of her surf-dude boyfriend Scott when she tells him that, far from accepting his proposal of marriage, she’s dumping him. Still, maybe that was just a momentary lapse.

Then Laura goes missing. A little while later, two severed arms wash up on the California shore; it doesn’t take the cops long to establish that, even though the arms were discovered miles apart, they belong to the same person. After a while, the assumption grows that this person is Laura.

Well, yes, except we’ve all read this sort of tale before . . . Continue reading

book: Istanbul Passage (2012) by Joseph Kanon

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A couple of the reviews cited on the back cover of this novel compare Joseph Kanon’s work to the writings of Graham Greene. I’ve come across such comments before but, having read his Los Alamos (which I liked), Alibi (which I loved) and Stardust (of which I had the highest of expectations but which, alas, disappointed me), have always taken them with a pinch of salt. Now, having read, Istanbul Passage, I quite understand the comparisons’ point. There’s also some Eric Ambler here, while the tale is set in what could loosely be thought of as CASABLANCA (1942) territory.

World War II has just ended, and Istanbul, which as neutral territory has been serving as a sort of hub for the espionage activities of the Axis and the Allies these past few years, is trying to work out what its role in the world is going to be. US tobacco trader Leon Bauer, who during the war did occasional unpaid freelance jobs for his country’s covert intelligence services while also helping smuggle refugee Jews to safety, reluctantly agrees to take on one last little chore: Continue reading

Word Games (TVM 1979)

US / 94 minutes / color / Gambit, Universal, NBC Dir: Boris Sagal Pr: James McAdams Scr: Richard Alan Simmons Cine: Isidore Mankofsky Cast: Kate Mulgrew, Henry Jones, Lili Haydn, Robert Culp, Edie Adams, Bob Dishy, Rene Auberjonois, Priscilla Pointer, Allan Rich, Frederic Forrest, Barney Martin, Christopher Allport, Herb Armstrong, Neil Flanagan, Susan Connors, Miriam Nelson.

This was the pilot to a series spun off from Columbo and featuring the detection adventures of the wife whom the lieutenant constantly cites but never names. The series, by contrast, experienced a surfeit of names during its short lifetime (13 episodes), beginning as Mrs. Columbo, then becoming Kate Columbo, then Kate the Detective and finishing as Kate Loves a Mystery. As you’ll have guessed, in this spinoff the otherwise anonymous Mrs. Columbo is given a name, Kate; after a mid-series divorce from her more celebrated husband, she becomes Kate Callahan.

Kate Mulgrew as Kate Columbo.

Continue reading

Prescription: Murder (1968 TVM)

US / 99 minutes / color / Universal, MCA–TV, NBC Dir & Pr: Richard Irving Scr: Richard Levinson, William Link Story: Enough Rope (1960 teleplay) and Prescription: Murder (1962 play), both by Richard Levinson and William Link Cine: Ray Rennahan Cast: Peter Falk, Gene Barry, Katherine Justice, William Windom, Nina Foch, Virginia Gregg, Andrea King, Susanne Benton, Ena Hartman, Sherry Boucher, Anthony James.

The very first appearance of the iconic Lt. Columbo was in a 1960 TV movie called Enough Rope, an episode of the Chevy Mystery Show; the character was played by Bert Freed. The writers of that episode, Richard Levinson and William Link, then took their teleplay and made a stage play out of it. And, in due course they adapted their stage play back into the teleplay for the TV movie, Prescription: Murder, that would become the pilot for the phenomenally successful series. (It wasn’t the only intelligent crime series birthed by the Levinson/Link team, who Continue reading

Enemy (2013)

Canada, Spain / 91 minutes / color / Pathé, Entertainment One, Telefilm Canada, Instituto de la Cinematografia y de las Artes Audiovisuales, Corus, Televisión Española, Ontario Media Development Corporation, Société de Développement des Enterprises Culturelles Québec, Rhombus, Roxbury, micro_scope, Mecanísmo, Alfa Dir: Denis Villeneuve Pr: Miguel A. Faura, Niv Fichman Scr: Javier Gullón Story: O Homem Duplicado (2002; vt The Double) by José Saramago Cine: Nicolas Bolduc Cast: Jake Gyllenhaal, Mélanie Laurent, Sarah Gadon, Isabella Rossellini.

A highly enigmatic piece from a director whose noirish credentials are excellent, including offerings like Incendies (2010), Prisoners (2013), Sicario (2015) and Blade Runner 2049 (2017), all of which are likely to be covered here at some point. The enigma in Enemy focuses in part on the role of spiders in the movie’s subtext—apparently the cast and crew had to sign non-disclosure clauses on this matter—but primarily on what’s genuinely happening. Is the story actually one of a man finding his doppelgänger—or, really, his complementary self—or are we witnessing a protracted musing as a rather unpleasant man witnesses the pornographic death of a spider?

That last is the culmination of the movie’s opening sequence, set in some kind of exclusive live-pornography club, where seemingly well heeled men watch acts of sex and sadism. In one of these, an enormous spider is revealed, only to be crushed under the heel of a togaed woman. Witnessing the act is an as yet unidentified man, whom we’ll know with hindsight to be Anthony Claire (Gyllenhaal).

Sarah Gadon as Helen.

Cut now to the humdrum existence of meek-mannered history teacher Adam Bell (Gyllenhaal again). Each day he teaches the same class to seemingly the same students, then rides home on the same bus to have the same bonk with steady girlfriend Mary (Laurent). But a chance watching of a DVD reveals to him he has a physical double in the form of Continue reading

book: The Liar’s Girl (2018) by Catherine Ryan Howard

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Ten years ago Alison Smith, a university student in Dublin, fled to a new life in the Netherlands after her boyfriend, Will Hurley, confessed to being the Canal Killer, serial murderer of five young women whose bodies had been found in the city’s Grand Canal, his final victim being Alison’s oldest and best friend Liz. Now, ten years later, the murders have started up again and Will, confined to a high-security psychiatric facility, says he has information that he’ll pass on to no one but Alison. So the Gardai fetch her back to Dublin and beg for her help.

Are the new murders Continue reading

book: Blood Wedding (2009; trans 2016 Frank Wynne) by Pierre Lemaitre

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I raved to an embarrassing degree about Lemaitre’s Alex, which, despite being the second book in a trilogy (whose other two volumes have now been translated, though I still haven’t read them*), was his first novel to be translated into English, and then was rather disappointed in his Three Days and a Life. I’m delighted to say that, with Blood Wedding, I’m back to raving about a Pierre Lemaitre novel again.

What a wild ride this one is. When I first picked the book up I groaned to see on the cover that someone (Library Journal, in point of fact) had made the seemingly obligatory comparison to Gone Girl, and prepared to laugh later about how maladroit the comparison was. In fact, for once, I had to concede that the LJ reviewer had a point. There’s a school of psychological thriller that requires the reader to willingly suspend disbelief and just enjoy the ride. A good example is Hitchcock’s VERTIGO (1958), which has all sorts of plot elements that wouldn’t be believable in the real world but work just fine in the movie. Flynn’s Gone Girl falls into that same category. (It may be relevant that I for once preferred the screen adaptation to the original book.) And so does Blood Wedding, which asks us to accept an obsessive who makes Vertigo‘s Scottie look like a mere dabbler.

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Sophie Duguet is a happily married young career woman in Paris until things suddenly begin to go wrong. She starts mysteriously losing items that Continue reading

Madame Sin (1972 TVM)

UK / 76 minutes / color / 2X, ITC, ABC Dir: David Greene Pr: Julian Wintle, Lou Morheim Scr: Barry Oringer, David Greene Story: Lou Morheim, Barry Shear (creators) Cine: Tony Richmond Cast: Bette Davis, Robert Wagner, Denholm Elliott, Gordon Jackson, Dudley Sutton, Catherine Schell, Pik-Sen Lim, Alan Dobie, Roy Kinnear, Al Mancini, Paul Maxwell, Charles Lloyd Pack, Paul Maxwell, David Healy, Burt Kwouk.

When retired spy Anthony “Tony” Lawrence (Wagner) turns down a recruitment offer made to him by sophisticatedly scuzzy Malcolm de Vere (Elliott), he’s electronically disabled and flown to an island castle somewhere off the Scottish coast that fronts for the hi-tech lair of Ernst Blofeld Madame Sin (Davis).

Bette Davis as Madame Sin.

Madame Sin is a criminal mastermind who’s surrounded herself with scientists, at least one of them officially dead, who’re capable of doing the most alarming things with technology. It’s through using one of their gadgets, an ultrasound gun capable of sending people into a seemingly drugged semi-coma, that de Vere’s henchwomen, disguised as fetching nuns, disabled Tony so de Vere and sidekick Monk (Sutton) can abduct him.

Robert Wagner as Tony.

Denholm Elliott as de Vere.

Tony was lucky, Madame Sin assures him. Turn up the volume on the gadget and it can Continue reading