I’m reading an excellent book by my Marvel University colleague Jack Seabrook entitled Martians and Misplaced Clues: The Life & Work of Fredric Brown (1993), despite the fact that I am as yet familiar with Brown’s work only through the occasional adaptation; his story “Arena” (Astounding Science Fiction, June 1944) was the basis for both the Star Trek episode of the same name and, arguably, the Outer Limits entry “Fun and Games.” Many of his mystery stories also appeared on television, most notably as episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents (“The Cream of the Jest,” “The Night the World Ended,” “The Dangerous People,” “Human Interest Story“) and Thriller (“Knock Three-One-Two“). Relatively few of Brown’s thirty novels have been filmed, but one exception is The Screaming Mimi (1949), adapted in 1958 by future “Fun and Games” director Gerd Oswald and largely undistinguished horror/SF screenwriter Robert Blees.
One of the reasons I own a copy of the novel, and will one day do a comparison between page and screen, is that it is often said to be the uncredited basis for Dario Argento’s directorial debut, the seminal giallo film The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970). I’m not a particular fan of either Argento or gialli, but I certainly recognize their importance in the horror genre, and have long noted (not that I’m the only one to do so) that although Argento gets the lion’s share of the credit for popularizing the subgenre, he was in many ways simply following and elaborating upon the template established by Mario Bava—of whom I AM particular fan—in films like The Girl Who Knew Too Much (aka The Evil Eye, 1962) and Blood and Black Lace (1964). What’s especially intriguing in this case is that The Girl Who Knew Too Much, The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, and many of Argento’s subsequent films all rely on a plot mechanism that Brown used in The Screaming Mimi.
Several of Brown’s mysteries hinge upon what Jack calls “the misplaced clue,” in which the “investigation centers on the vicinity of the murders until a point late in the novel, where [the protagonist] must travel out of town or out of state to discover something from the past that provides the missing link needed to solve the puzzle.” In The Screaming Mimi, on the other hand, protagonist Sweeney witnesses the aftermath of an attack on a beautiful blonde dancer by a serial killer known as the Ripper, only to learn later on (without giving away anything for those unfamiliar with the story) that what took place was far different from what he thought he saw. Not only Bird but also Argento’s Four Flies on Grey Velvet (1971)—whose hero, like Sweeney, has a friend named “God”—Deep Red (1975), Suspiria (1977), Trauma (1993), and others utilize what might be referred to as “the misinterpreted/misremembered/forgotten clue.”
Jack’s book doesn’t mention the Argento connection, of which I first learned from my original 1990 edition of Fangoria contributor Maitland McDonagh’s since-updated Broken Mirrors/Broken Minds: The Dark Dreams of Dario Argento, autographed by Maitland and Argento himself at a Film Forum appearance. But this essay by David Jacobs from S. Michael Wilson’s 2008 anthology Monster Rally, “Argento’s Big Rip-Off: Stealing Screaming Mimi,” documents it quite damningly; if the Google Books link doesn’t take you right to it, it’s on pages 217-225. The net result, of course, is that Argento—a former screenwriter who denied the aging Brown (1906-1972) proper credit or remuneration for the blatant use of his work—turns out to be even more derivative with his gialli than by merely ripping off Bava or, later (and endlessly), himself.
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