Monday, November 16, 2020

Saboteur (1942)--with very best (though belated) happy birthday wishes to Norman Lloyd!

Alfred Hitchcock's suspense film Saboteur suffers in comparison, I think, with the films which immediately preceded and followed it (Rebecca, Foreign Correspondent, Suspicion, even the oddball screwball Mr. and Mrs. Smith, on the one side and Shadow of a Doubt, Lifeboat, Spellbound and Notorious on the other); yet it's an entertaining film in its own right.  Its plot is animated by one of Hitch's most characteristic devices: the flight-and-pursuit "wrong man" plot, in which the hero--and it's always a hero as opposed to a heroine, I think--is wrongfully blamed for some form of wicked malfeasance and has to flee both the law and the lawless until he can find the real villain and establish his innocence.

Man (Bob Cummings) in trouble; Woman (Priscilla Lane) at the wheel

In this case it's sweet-faced Barry Kane (Robert Cummings), a wartime worker in an aircraft factory in Glendale, California.  (My grandmother used to live there and I stayed at her apartment there way back in 1974.)  Poor Barry gets blamed when a hellish fire ravages the plant, killing his best friend in the process, and he has to go on the run.  (But naturally!)  Then through a series of set pieces he evades the goodies and baddies, ending up in New York, where he has a climactic confrontation with the true saboteur, whose identity we have known since the beginning of the film (like most Hitchcock films this is a thriller, not a mystery): a mysterious malevolent individual named Fry, superbly played by Norman Lloyd, who just celebrated his birthday a week ago.  His 106th birthday!  He has been around a long time.  Amazingly, he is only two years younger than Hugh Wheeler of Patrick Quentin fame, whose biography I am writing, who died back in 1987.

Norman Lloyd drops out of the film

The climactic set piece takes place on the small deck around the torch of the Statue of Liberty and is one of the most memorable scene in the Hitchcock oeuvre to my mind.  The film itself, however, strikes me as thrilling only in fits and starts. It consists of a series of set pieces all across America, some more striking than others.  The film is something of a retread of Hitchcock's earlier, and more celebrated, English film The Thirty-Nine Steps, where actors Robert Donat and Madeleine Carroll spend a good chunk of the film handcuffed to each other and bickering as Donat drags the attractive but aggrieved Carroll along with him.  In Saboteur Cummings ends up forcing an attractive but aggrieved young woman (Priscilla Lane) to come along with him as well (after he gets out of a pair of handcuffs).  My favorite scene in this section of the film takes place when Cummings and Lane encounter a group of circus "freaks" on a train--and a most engaging and philosophical group of individuals they are!

Otto Kruger makes a reliable silky villain, but I was more interested in Alan Baxter's blond and bespectacled and vaguely pervy baddie Freeman.  There's a scene he shares with Cummings, where apropos of nothing he starts talking about how he wishes his young sons were little girls and how he himself had the most beautiful golden locks as a lad and how everyone admired him.  It's such a weird scene but certainly made me wonder about this character!  Author Dorothy Parker was involved in punching up the script and I am curious just what bits she might have contributed.

Freeman (Alan Baxter) creeping out Barry Kane (Bob Cummings)

People are of mixed opinion about the leads, Cummings and Lane, and while I found Lane pretty bland I thought light comedy star Cummings' "aw shucks" Americanism was well-suited to the role.  It must be this quality that gets so many people, like the majority of the circus freaks and ultimately the "girl" herself, to believe in him, when, really, they have no logical reason to do so!

Still the stand-out presence in the film is villain Norman Lloyd, who after the first ten minutes disappears from the film--but when he finally shows up again, things really take off!  Not only do we have the death battle atop the Statue of Liberty, but there's also a boffo shooting sequence at Radio City Music Hall.  Lloyd doesn't have a lot of dialogue, but he makes an excellent cruelly sneering blond villain, presumably a native German or American Nazi sympathizer, the irony of which must have been appreciated by the then twenty-six year old actor, who was born Norman Perlmutter.  This fine villain is rewarded with an exquisite film demise, which, if you're a vintage film fan, you have probably already seen before, even if you haven't seen the film in its entirety.  

Surprisingly to me Saboteur received no Oscar nominations, in contrast with Hitch's earlier espionage thriller Foreign Correspondent (1940), which was nominated for six Oscars, including best picture.  (Hitch actually had two films nominated for best picture that year, this and Rebecca, the latter of which won.)  I would have thought Saboteur would at least have been nominated for best visual effects for the impressively designed arson and Statue of Liberty sequences.  (Ten films were nominated that year, including Mrs. Miniver.)  Ah, well, posterity remembers.  

Norman and Hitch on the set of Sabotage

As for birthday boy Norman Lloyd, this was the start of a fruitful artistic relationship between him and the Master.  Saboteur was his first full feature film.  In genre work he went on to co-star in The Unseen (1945), an adaptation of an Ethel Lina White thriller, and Hitchcock's own Spellbound (1945), as well as the American remake of the classic German serial murderer film M and the noir crime drama He Ran all the Way, both from 1951.  However, his career stalled after his role in Charlie Chaplin's Limelight (1952), when he became yet another victim of the Hollywood blacklist.  I think Limelight was his last film until the supernatural thriller Audrey Rose with Anthony Hopkins and Marsha Mason, which came out in 1977!  He was also in the Oscar-nominated films Dead Poets Society and The Age of Innocence and had a major role in the acclaimed Eighties hospital drama St. Elsewhere, which is how I originally knew him.  

Back in the Fifties it was Hitchcock who came to Lloyd's aid by hiring him as an associate producer on his popular television suspense anthology series Alfred Hitchcock Presents.  (He was later the executive producer of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour.)  Lloyd acted in a few of the episodes as well, performing memorably in my mind as the title character in "The Little Man Who Was There" (1960).  It's not exactly a mystery per se, but it should appeal to all lovers of good tale telling. 

A dozen years later Lloyd appeared in "A Feast of Blood," an episode of the Rod Serling horror anthology series Night Gallery that scared the bejesus out of me when I was a kid.  It looks cheesy to the adult me, I must admit, but if not the special effects then Lloyd's performance holds up, as does Sondra Locke's as the beautiful blonde recipient of Lloyd's unusual gift.  His last work as a producer seems to have been on the suspense series Tales of the Unexpected, an Eighties anthology based on the work of Roald Dahl.  All in all, a fine legacy in film and television (not to get into stage)--and to think it all began with a fatal fall from the Statue of Liberty!

Friday, November 13, 2020

The Game Goes On: Death in the Grand Manor (1970), by Anne Morice

By 1970 the Golden Age of detective fiction, which had dawned in splendor  a half-century earlier in 1920, had sunk into shadow like the sun at eventide, yet there were still a few old hands practicing the fine art of finely clued murder, plus there were some new ones in the offing.  A good thing too: murder needs new blood.  For example, Perry Mason creator Erle Stanley Gardner, a veritable fiction factory in and of himself, died that very year, in March, at the age of eighty.  His last detective novels were published posthumously, in 1971 and 1972.  Eighty-four-year-old Christopher Bush published his final mystery, The Case of the Prodigal Daughter, in 1969, the same year eighty-three-year-old Rex Stout published Death of a Dude, which would be remain most recently published mystery for four years.

On the other hand, Agatha Christie, who like Gardner was eighty years old, to much fanfare produced what her publishers dubbed an "extravaganza," Passenger to Frankfurt.  While admittedly not (ahem!) the greatest moment in Christie's career, the novel was an international bestseller.  John Dickson Carr and Ellery Queen, mere youngsters in their sixties, respectively published The Ghosts' High Noon and The Last Woman in His Life, though neither of those titles was, sad to say, a great example of detective fiction either.  

Mr. Campion's Falcon, the second Albert Campion mystery penned by the late Margery Allingham's spouse, Philip Youngman Carter, was published, albeit posthumously "Pip" having passed away himself in 1969.  Seventy-five year old Ngaio Marsh published a travelogue mystery, When in Rome, not one of her better books in my view.  Gladys Mitchell and Anthony Gilbert, both around seventy, published respectively Gory Dew and Death Wears a Mask, neither of which I've read.  Leo Bruce, nearly seventy himself, published Death on Allhallowe'en, by no means his best mystery but certainly a worthy effort.  

Sixty-four year old Michael Innes, who would hang in the writing game for nearly two more decades, published Death at the Chase, easily outlasting his fellow "Detection Don" Nicholas Blake, whose last novel, The Private Wound, appeared in 1968.  (Blake would pass away in 1972.)  Elizabeth Ferrars, who came along at the tail end of the Golden Age and was now sixty-three, published The Seven Sleepers, which is pretty interesting as I recollect and one of the few by her which takes place in her ancestral homeland of Scotland, always a great setting for mysteries.

However, there were also other, younger authors, many of whom were at the top of their games.  Writers like Patricia Moyes, who had been at it for just over a decade then, who published the excellent Who Saw Her Die?  There was HRF Keating, who also debuted in 1959, with another of his Indian mysteries, Inspector Ghote Breaks an Egg.  There was also American Emma Lathen, who had promisingly debuted in 1961, with Pick up Sticks.  Back in England there was Joyce Porter, who had memorably debuted in 1964,  with Dover Strikes Again and Catherine Aird, who had followed Porter two years later in 1966, with A Late Phoenix.  

There was as well Ruth Rendell, who had debuted in 1964, with another of her reliable Inspector Wexford series mysteries, A Guilty Thing Surprised.  And there was newcomer Peter Lovesey, who debuted with his Victorian mystery Wobble to Death, recently reissued in a commemorative edition, and  Reginald Hill, who likewise debuted with  A Clubbable Woman.  (Both Lovesey and Hill were just lads in their thirties in those days!)  Another newcomer of promise was Margaret Yorke, who debuted with Dead in the Morning, the first in her short-lived Patrick Grant detective series.

And then there was another debut performer, Anne Morice (1916-1989), with her self-professed "novel of detection" (it says so right on the front of the dust jacket), Death in the Grand Manor.  Truly 1970 was a good year.

the graphics may be Seventies 
but the milieu is Thirties

Anne Morice's Death in the Grand Manor introduced the author's admirable series sleuth, Tessa Crichton, who would appear in and narrate 23 detective novels between 1970 and 1988.  Tessa is a young actress who has a penchant, as all amateur detectives do, for crossing paths (and swords) with Murder in all its foul and fair guises.  In Manor Tessa is staying with her willful and eccentric playwright cousin, Toby Crichton, at his house in the tiny wealthy community of Roakes Common, located not far from London, in order to look after Toby's precocious eleven-year-old daughter Ellen, while his second wife, Ellen's stepmother Matilda, is mostly away at a stage acting gig.  

Roakes Common is a village right out of the pages of Agatha Christie, as Tessa--who is compared to a youthful Miss Marple in reference to her nosiness when she scents murder--reveals in her narration:

Roakes Common....consists of twenty or thirty houses, two pubs and a combined post office and store, set in a hundred acres of commonland.  The Common is divided down the middle by the road which joins Storhampton, in the Thames Valley, with Dedley, twenty miles to the north.  

There's even a gardener named Parkes and a housecleaner named Mrs. Grumble!

Sadly a most objectionable family, the Cornfords, has recently purchased the derelict old manor house in Roakes Common, upsetting the pleasant status quo.  Douglas Cornford, "the son of an industrial tycoon from the Midlands," comes with an overbearing wife, Bronwen, and two exceedingly obnoxious children.  Bronwen, in particular, manages to offend everyone in the community, including a gay (in both senses of the word) male couple, the Biblically named Peter and Paul, who rather reminded me of the lesbian couple in Agatha Christie's A Murder is Announced, published two decades earlier.  

Halfway though the novel occurs the expected murder--and then Tessa is on the hunt!  She's also on the lookout for the handsome blond man she briefly talked up at the pub, when batty Bronwen stormed in and caused a dreadful dust-up.  Could there be romance as well as murder in the air for our Tessa?

When it was published in 1970, Death in the Grand Manor received stellar reviews, though "light" was an adjective almost invariably applied to it.  Apparently reviewers had not yet discovered the term "cozy," of which Manor seems an early example.  Yet despite the cozy setting there's a tartness to Tessa's narration and the brittle dialogue which reminds me of the Golden Age Crime Queens and even, to part from mystery for a minute, Noel Coward.  It may be cozy but it's certainly not cloying.  Morice  definitely avoids soppiness and sentimentality and her Tessa repeatedly reveals a nice turn for phrase. "Sackcloth and ashes would have been overdressing for the mood I had sunk into by then," she observes at one point.

Fittingly the novel was enthusiastically reviewed by Golden Age stalwarts Edmund Crispin and Francis Iles (aka Anthony Berkeley Cox).  Crispin found it a "charming whodunit....full of unforced buoyance" and prescribed it as a "remedy for existentialist gloom."  Iles, who would pass away at the age of 77 less than six months after penning this review, deemed the novel a "most attractive lightweight," adding:

entertainingly written, it provides a modern version of the classical type of detective story.  I was much taken with the cheerful young narrator...and I think most readers will feel the same way.  Warmly recommended.

It was like a benediction from one of the high priests of English murder, back from the time when fictional foul play was an amusement.  

Once the bright young hope of classic English crime, Edmund Crispin, long sunk in bouts of existential gloom, would survive Iles by only seven years, dying in 1978 at the age of 56.  But happily for detective fiction fans, new talents like Anne Morice had entered the ranks and would remain there for some time to come.

I am pleased to report that Anne Morice's Tessa Crichton detective novels will be reprinted by Dean Street Press next year.  For more on the fascinating background of the author, see an earlier post by me here.  Look for an interview with a daughter of Anne Morice at this blog later this year.