Mostly my musings on things vintage hardboiled and noir, literary and filmic and other things that take my fancy. Down these mean streets this man must go...

Sunday 28 April 2013

Take My Face by Peter Held (Pyramid Books G327) (1958)

Thirteen year-old Robert Struve is facially disfigured whilst riding a borrowed motor scooter which is struck by a car being steered by eight year-old Julie Horvard who is sitting on her father's lap. His impoverished mother settles for a low insurance pay-out and Robert completes his high-school education, where he excels as a football player. However, after he is invited to a sorority house initiation, he attacks Julie when he discovers he is the butt of a prank in which Julie and her sorority sisters Cathy, Dean and Lucia are meant to make out with him. Robert is sent to reform school where he finally receives plastic surgery to change his appearance.

Five years later, Dean is murdered in San Francisco shortly after telling her brother Carr that she has recently met Robert. Although her husband George confesses, Carr is convinced that Robert is seeking revenge for his earlier mistreatment and when it seems that the same killer is targeting the remainder of the female quartet, it appears that he may be correct...

This is the only novel written under the pseudonym Peter Held by Jack Vance (John Holbrook Vance) - an author more noted for his science-fiction and fantasy stories. In spite of the brutal but effective cover art by John Floherty and the front and back cover text, this is a murder mystery rather than an early serial-killer thriller, as much of the narrative focus placed on the character and motivations of the young women seemingly being lined up for the kill by a vengeful murderer as well as on the
identity of the killer.

The small-town setting with its formal collegiate rituals and codes of behaviour clearly belong to another time and place far removed from the contemporary scene, but these are nevertheless strongly evoked. So is the tension, which quietly builds, juxtaposing the murderous and the mundane - and the macabre - in a manner that keeps the reader off guard whilst rapidly turning the pages in what is a short, sharp and fast read.

There are some clever twists, including a major one which means this review must give away as little as the novel itself; even though it is one that has been oft-repeated since and most recently in a highly-regarded US TV show. Overall, this is a satisfying read, well-paced and written with a keen eye for detail and is therefore recommended if you're fortunate enough to find a copy.

AFTERWORD: And if you're fortunate enough to find an affordable copy of either the Pyramid paperback edition above or the original and extremely scarce 1957 Mystery House hardback you will be fortunate indeed. However, the book has since been republished under Jack Vance's name in a limited edition by Underwood-Miller in 1988 - which means copies seem to fetch extremely high prices - and also as The Flesh Mask (which is apparently Vance's preferred title) in a 2002 Vance Integral edition. My copy was more affordable as it was purchased as part of a job lot of Pyramid titles, and which at least made it relatively inexpensive compared to buying a single copy.

Monday 1 April 2013

Keep Talking Baby (86 mins) Original Title: Cause Toujours, Mon Lapin

Jackson the ventriloquist (Eddie Constantine) is sentenced to twenty years in solitary confinement. However, prison bars cannot hold him for long and he quickly breaks out, returning to his Parisian haunts in search of a woman called Francoise whom he believes can provide him with an alibi. However, Francoise is shot and injured by gang members working for nightclub owner and criminal Simon. As she lies injured, Francoise tells Jackson to recover her daughter Sophie from a hotel room where she has been hidden. However, Simon's gang are on the trail, so Jackson and Sophie have to keep one step ahead of Simon and his gang whilst Jackson seeks to clear his name.

This is a lame, pedestrian and poorly motivated adaptation of Day Keene's superior crime novel Strange Witness (see previous entry). The tin-eared dubbing doesn't help, but it's the radical narrative alterations that hobble the film so that it limps to an unsatisfactory end. Setting aside the narrative ellipse at the start that fails to explain how Jackson breaks out of solitary confinement, one is still left with the red herring Sophie.

Rather than being a deux ex machina who could provide Jackson with the alibi to save him, Sophie serves no narrative purpose whatsoever, and neither does the large stuffed rabbit she insists Jackson buy for her; unlike in the novel where it provides for a key plot twist. Featuring one of the least exciting cinematic car chases, the type of wimpy hoods who hand over information after one light slap to the face, compliant women who find Hart so irresistible that they fall for his charms almost as soon as he opens his mouth and a plot that is mostly tell rather than show (the 86 minutes really do crawl by), and one is left with a highly unsatisfactory adaptation that fails to do any kind of justice to its fast-paced - if not exactly flawless - literary origins.

AFTERWORD: Although his literary output was prolific, Day Keene's work was not well-served by screen adaptations as surprisingly few of his books have been filmed. Apart from this film, Rene Clement's Les Felins (aka The Love Cage and Joy House), which was based on Joy House, and the Elvis Presley vehicle The Trouble With Girls, and which was adapted from Keene and Dwight Vincent's novel Chautauqua, are the best known. The film's Belgian poster - which I have scanned in from my collection - is more atmospheric and evocative than anything in the film, which is available as a VoD DVD-R from Sinister Cinema, and whose sound and image quality are serviceable enough.