Mystery movies


THE FATAL HOUR. Monogram Pictures, 1940. Mr. Wong #4. Boris Karloff (James Lee Wong), Marjorie Reynolds, Grant Withers, Charles Trowbridge, Frank Puglia, Craig Reynolds, Lita Chevret. Based on the “James Lee Wong” series in Collier’s Magazine written by Hugh Wiley. Director: William Nigh.

   When an undercover policeman and a good friend of Captain Bill Street of San Francisco Homicide is found murdered, it is his friend Mr. Wong who steps in and gives him all the help he needs to catch the killer. Spunky female reporter Bobbie Logan is also on hand, but she’s there mostly for eye appeal and doesn’t do much in the way of actual detective work.

   But since I’ve mentioned “detective work,” this is, I think, is one of the better B-movies in that regard that I’ve watched in a while. There are a lot of suspects crammed into a movie that is only about an hour long, and all of the plot points click off like clockwork. There is even a brand new invention involving a common home [Redacted] that’s part of the solution.

   To tell you the truth, Boris Karloff doesn’t look Chinese to me, but any movie that he appeared in was far better off than if he wasn’t, and The Fatal Hour is no exception. I haven’t seen one of these Mr. Wong movies since I was 15 or 16, and it’s only me who’s the worse for wear.

   

THE TRUTH ABOUT CHARLIE. Universal Pictures, 2002. Thandie Newton, Mark Wahlberg, Tim Robbins, Christine Boisson, Simon Abkarian, Charles Aznavour. Based on the film Charade (1963). Director and co-screenwriter: Jonathan Demme.

   There was a lot of talent involved in making this movie, but the end result certainly doesn’t show it. I came across this film by researching the credits of the leading female star, Thandie Newton, whom I most recently saw in the mini-series Rogue, which I recently reviewed here.

   She has the second-most undesirable task of playing the part that Audrey Hepburn played in the movie this one is a remake of, and I’m happy to saw that she does a creditable job of imitating the pixieish charm of Miss Hepburn. On a scale from one to a hundred, I’d give her a 60. Mark Wahlberg, however, displays — well, let’s put it this way. Cary Grant had more charm in the pinkie of his left hand than Mark Wahlberg shows in trying to follow in his predecessor’s most considerable footsteps.

   I know Wahlberg has gone on to bigger and better things, but at this stage of his career, he was out of his league. And Tim Robbins in Walter Matthau’s shoes? Not on your life, not ever.

   The story’s almost the same. A young woman who’s not been married long but is already thinking divorce comes home from a brief vacation to find the apartment they share all but empty and what furniture there still is destroyed. Turns out the man is dead, he had many many secrets, and many people want something — a fortune in diamonds that he had in his possession.

   All of the fancy camera doesn’t help a muddled and badly told story, and it often served to make me dizzy. This was a mess, through and through — there’s no better word to describe it — a film best avoided if possible, and I don’t say that lightly. The only reason I watched until the bitter end was to see Thandie Newton, whose name and fame does not match that of any of the others involved in this production, but it should.

PS. There is still the same fatal flaw in the plot that the first movie had, and if anyone wants to know, I’ll bring it up in the comments. That’s the one thing they could have improved upon in putting this remake together, and why they didn’t, I can’t possibly imagine.

   

I’LL NAME THE MURDERER. Puritan Pictures, 1936. Ralph Forbes, Marion Shilling, Malcolm MacGregor, James Guilfoyle, John W. Cowell, Wm. Norton Bailey, Agnes Anderson, Charlotte Barr-Smith, Mildred Claire. Director: Raymond K. Johnson.

   I certainly can’t stop you, but I’m going to tell you up front that I’m probably not going to say anything in this review that will encourage you one iota to see this movie. On the other hand, don’t get me wrong. Just because it’s another run-of-the-mill mystery movie made in the 30s by a film company you never heard of doesn’t mean that it’s a bad movie. Unless you’re like me, that is, and you can’t get enough of these slapdash mystery movies and only watch them for the sheer fun of doing so.

   Dead is a nightclub singer who, as it turns out, she has made a lot of enemies, and what’s worse, from the point of view of those trying to name the killer, there plenty of them in and around her dressing room where she was stabbed to death.

   Assisting them in their duty, whether they want his help or not, are a well-known gossip columnist (Ralph Forbes) and a lady photographer for the same paper (a cheerfully chipper Marion Shilling). Assisting them in turn is a PI named Joe Baron (James Guilfoyle), but in only an auxiliary role.

   At the basis of the victim’s death, or so it seems, is a batch of old love letters she’s using for a bit of blackmail, but this is more than a one-note samba. There is, as expected, more to it than that. The title of this film, by the way, comes from the fact that toward the end of it Tommy Tilton advertises in one of his daily columns that he’s far ahead of the police and will announce who the murderer is in the following day’s paper.

   All of the players were new to me. Some had long careers, however, and some not so long. For one of them, this was the only movie she was ever in. Among the others with short career was the very plain if not unattractive (shall we say) young woman who played Joe Baron’s secretary. She’s quick with a quip, hwever, and a sharp retort, and she caught my attention right away. She’s not in the credits, so I had to look her up on IMDb after the movie was over. Her name was Louise Keaton, and that may be enough to tell you whose younger sister she was.

   Little bits like this always makes movies like this one, worth watching.

   

MONEY MADNESS. Film Classics, 1948. Hugh Beaumont, Frances Rafferty, Harlan Warde, Cecil Weston. Screenwriter: Al Martin. Director: Sam Newfield (as Peter Stewart).

   There is a small but elite set of noir films that begin with a man getting off a bus (or train) with only a suitcase. The town is usually in warmer climes, and all he owns is likely to be in the suitcase, but that’s not a absolute requirement. It doesn’t take him long to find a girl, perhaps working in a small diner, night club or roadhouse on the outskirts of town.

   In this case, however, before he meets the girl, he puts most of the contents of the suitcase into a bank safety deposit box: $200,000 in cash. We the viewer are suspicious immediately, but not the girl, who is as tired of slinging hash as she is of living with a crabby old aunt. So weary of life as she is living it as to be swept off her feet and be married only two days later.

   Which is when the man (Hugh Beaumont) lets the girl (Frances Rafferty) what he has in mind to do with the aunt, and how he plans to launder the money, although I am not sure that’s a word that was in common use in 1948.

   As the naive young woman, Frances Rafferty is perhaps a little too naive and too willing to go along with the other’s plan, but Hugh Beaumont as the man with the plan is a revelation as someone who can go in only a split second from a sweet-talking lover to a tough and out-and-out cad who won’t take no for an answer, and in no uncertain terms, lets his new bride know it.

   It was a different era when men could dominate women this way, or is it? The story is taut and well-structured with only one caveat, and the minimal amount of money that was able to be spent on production fits in perfectly with the dinginess of life of the less than middle class in 1948.

   The caveat? It’s too late now, but I’ve have told the producers of the film to drop the opening scene altogether. It doesn’t fit, no way no how. They’d have been far better off starting with man getting off the bus, which is where the movie begins anyway. Watch the film for yourself and see if you don’t agree.

   

REVIEWED BY DAN STUMPF:

   

ONE FRIGHTENED NIGHT. Mascot, 1935. Charley Grapewin, Mary Carlisle, Arthur Hohl, Wally Ford, Lucian Littlefield, Regis Toomey, Hedda Hopper. Screenplay by Wellyn Totman, based on a story by Stuart Palmer. Director: Christy Cabanne.

   I don’t want to wax too passionate about the virtues of One Frightened Night, a cheap old-dark-house thing from a studio that died of penury, filled with bad dialogue, tired acting, and no pace whatsoever. And yet…

   

   Night starts off with imaginative title credits, worthy of Sam Bass (B-movie makers knew the value of wrapping even the direst offerings in fancy wrap) and proceeds to ring in some changes on the standard formula. Charles Grapewin (Uncle Henry in Wizard of Oz) stars as Jasper Whyte, a reclusive millionaire who kicks things off by announcing plans to distribute his wealth, Lear-like, before his death, to his greedy relatives gathered for the occasion in his creepy mansion on a dark/stormy etc. But there’s a hitch: he tells everyone they wouldn’t get any of it if he had only been able to find his long-lost grand-daughter.

   This is normally the sort of set-up that would put him dead on the library carpet late in the first reel, but writer Stuart Palmer throws things about a bit: just before Midnight (when the bequests were to be made) Jasper’s lawyer shows up with the missing heiress. Then “The Great Luvalle” a creaky vaudeville magician played by Wallace Ford, arrives with another woman claiming to be the missing grand-daughter. In short order one of them turns up dead, and Jasper, who started off the film looking like the most-likely victim is thrust into the role of amateur detective.

   I’d like to say the film lives up to this charming premise, but the fact is, it just sort of plods along, with tired dialogue, annoying complications, and humor that could set comedy back fifty years. On the other hand, Grapewin delights in playing a lead, Wallace Ford is suitably brassy as the obvious charlatan, and together they inject enough energy into things to make One Frightened Night worth sitting through. To me, anyway.

— Reprinted from The Hound of Dr. Johnson 53, September 2007.

   

BLACK WIDOW. 20th Century Fox, 1954. Ginger Rogers, Van Heflin, Gene Tierney, George Raft, Peggy Ann Garner, Reginald Gardiner, Virginia Leith, Otto Kruger, Skip Homeier. Produced, written and directed by Nunnally Johnson. Based on the novel by Patrick Quentin.

   Somewhere in this Technicolor wide-screen Cinescope production, there is a rather ordinary back-and-white but still effective noir film just aching to break out. When the wife (Gene Tierney) of successful New York City playwright Peter Denver (Van Heflin) goes out of town for an undetermined amount to time to be with her sick mother, he makes an all but fatal mistake. He allows a young would-be writer (Peggy Ann Garner) in ingratiate herself into his life.

   She’s twenty years old and sweet-talkingly fresh from Savannah, Georgia, and while we the audience know how up to no good she is, Peter Denver is oblivious to the obvious. It does not help that the leading lady (Ginger Rogers) in his current play on Broadway lives with her husband the the apartment just above the Denvers. She is the epitome of catty and a woman who does not care who knows it.  Discreet is not a word in her vocabulary.

   And when upon Iris’s return young Nancy is found dead in the Denvers’ bathroom, Peter finds the hangman’s noose tightening around his own throat. Figuratively speaking, but still a distinct possibility, unless he does something about it personally, even while the police, in the person of homicide captain George Raft, are hot on his trail.

   At which point the nor aspects are set aside and the story becomes that of a much more ordinary detective mystery. A very very solid one, I hasten to add, but a story not quite as interesting as the jam Peter Denver gets himself into, quite unwittingly. I’m sure that fans of film noir will find the first half as satisfying enjoyable as I did. All the performances are very good, but Van Heflin and Peggy Ann Garner outshine them all.

   I do not know why Peter and Iris Duluth’s name was change to Denver for the sake of the movie, but I suspect (without evidence) that other less obvious changes from the book were made also. Those who have read the book can perhaps tell us more.

   

REVIEWED BY DAVID VINEYARD:

   

THE LEAGUE OF FRIGHTENED MEN. Columbia Pictures, 1937. Walter Connolly, Lionel Stander, Eduardo Ciannelli, Irene Hervey. Screenplay by Guy Endore, Eugene Solow, & Edward Chodorov, based on the novel by Rex Stout. Directed by Alfred E. Green.

   The bad things to begin with.

   And in all honesty they are pretty bad.

   Walter Connolly is simply awful as a nice, polite, annoyingly ambulatory Nero Wolfe (he was an even worse Father Brown), who unlike Edward Arnold in Meet Nero Wolfe, doesn’t even look fat enough for the part. He drinks hot cocoa instead of beer, and there is only a passing reference to food. We do passingly hear about orchids and see Wolfe using the phone to call Inspector Cramer from the greenhouse, and he punishes Cramer for “disrespecting the orchids,” but that and a bit of high-handed business from the book is about it far any glimpse of the real Wolfe goes save for one scene at the end.

   He’s not even rude and he doesn’t say ‘pfui’ once.

   This one even celebrates solving the case by taking Archie out for a drink.

   He does live in a fairly decent recreation of the brownstone, though.

   Fritz and Theodore don’t appear, instead Wolfe has a reformed crook named Butch as his butler, and if Sol and the boys don’t exactly show up, Archie has two “guys” he relies on.

   And again there is Lionel Stander as Archie Goodwin, so thick we cannot believe Wolfe would employee him much less rely on him. We open with Archie bored and goading Wolfe to go to a movie with him. No, not teasing Wolfe, not deliberately tweaking his eccentric boss, no, admiringly wondering why Wolfe won’t go to a movie with him.

   Archie is embarrassingly admiring of Wolfe throughout.

   That said, Stander this time gets to do some decent leg work, and if he is a low rent thug and not so comic relief, he still follows Stout’s plot enough to do some decent detective work, though considering how casually Wolfe moves in and out of the brownstone it is hard to imagine why he even needs Archie.

   Maybe he secretly wants to go see that murder mystery with him.

   He still comes off better than Cramer. Archie doesn’t fall through a door on his face eavesdropping.

   As in the book, Wolfe is approached by a member of a group of Harvard graduates who once took part in a hazing that crippled writer Paul Chapin. Now two of their members are dead, and they suspect Chapin is killing them off. Wolfe, in one thing at least like the real Wolfe, turns down the first millionaire in order to get all the “league of frightened men” to pay him.

   And who should walk in on his two canes appearing threatening and sinister as Wolfe is making his selling point than Paul Chapin (Eduardo Cianelli, who is excellent as the bitter wounded man despite an accent no one really explains)?

   There is another murder, and Chapin is caught red-handed, proving to Wolfe he can’t possibly be guilty.

   The film does not depart too much from the book in most things. It even ends with a gathering of the suspects, and Wolfe, typically highhanded, catching the killer out, as usual in a way that would be absolutely useless in a courtroom if the killer just bluffed Cramer and called a lawyer.

   I give Stout those scenes, I’ll give them to the movie.

   As in the book, the best scene may be the final meeting of Wolfe and the ungrateful Chapin. Wolfe’s appreciation of the wounded proud man is the closest we get to seeing the real Nero.

   As far as the mystery and plot, this one works better than the Arnold outing, and at least Connolly isn’t as annoyingly jolly as the chuckling Arnold (why is it so many actors play Wolfe as so much nicer and happier than Stout wrote him? William Conrad’s smiling was the worst part of his Wolfe).

   The good things: there is some atmospheric camera work, a generally good cast of suspects, all well versed in playing the main bad guy, a fairly literate script despite the portraits of Wolfe and Archie, and above all else Eduardo Ciannelli.

   But how anyone read those two books and ended up with Walter Connally and Lionel Stander as Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin…

   That’s a mystery even Wolfe’s father couldn’t solve.

   At least Eugene Pallette would have been fat and irritable enough, though I can’t quite wrap my head around William Powell as Archie or for that matter Errol Flynn.

   

FASHION MODEL. Monogram Pictures, 1945. Robert Lowery, Marjorie Weaver, Tim Ryan, Lorna Gray, Dorothy Christy, Dewey Robinson, Sally Yarnell, Jack Norton, Harry Depp, Nell Craig. Director: William Beaudine.

   With the title it has, you’d hardly expect a film called Fashion Model to be a murder mystery, but no kidding, that’s exactly what this movie is. And quite an enjoyable one it is, too. It takes place in a high class dress salon, and the object of interest is a valuable diamond brooch. Suspected is the stock boy, a young man played quite effectively by Robert Lowery, and his girl friend, one of the models, played even more effectively by Marjorie Weaver.

   Both of the two leading actors display a flair for comedy as well, and truth be told, there is more comedy in this movie than there is mystery, a screwball affair that I found entertaining from beginning to end. Marjorie Weaver was a vivacious brunette who never quite made it out of B-movie fare such as this (Charlie Chan, Michael Shayne, etc.), and unfortunately her career pretty much ended with this film.

   Of special note, perhaps, one of the cops on the case (Dewey Robinson as an a second-in-command to Tim Ryan) displays an IQ of about 80, tops. I think 1945 was about the end of the line for such embarrassments to police forces all across the country, wasn’t it?

   

REVIEWED BY DAVID VINEYARD:

   

E. V. CUNNINGHAM – Sylvia. Alan Macklin #1. Doubleday, hardcover, 1960. Crest d789, paperback, 1965. Also published as by Howard Fast: Carol Publishing, hardcover, 1992.

SYLVIA. Paramount Pictures, 1965. Carroll Baker, George Maharis, Joanne Dru, Viveca Lindfors, Peter Lawford, Edmond O’Brien, Aldo Ray, Ann Sothern, Lloyd Bochner, Jay Novello, Nancy Kovak. Screenplay by Sydney Boehm, Howard Fast (E. V. Cunningham), based on the latter’s novel.  Directed by Gordon Douglas.

   Most people go on doing whatever they were doing before, if they were doing it yesterday, they’re doing it today, and the odds are they’ll be doing it tomorrow as well. It applies to myself. I make a poor living in rut and routine, and my work is miserable and routine. When I have a buck I can push aside the really filthy jobs and accept the moderately filthy jobs, and then perhaps I feel a cheap sense of virtue, as empty and meaningless as everything else I feel.

   That’s the voice of private eye Alan Macklin (if it sounds familiar both Lew Archer and Philip Marlowe say close to the same thing), who specializes in digging into people’s past, whether they want to be uncovered or not. His love is ancient history, and it makes him good at digging into the history of the people he is hired to investigate. Luckily this looks like one of the nicer cases he might be called to exercise his skills on, one of those “moderately filthy jobs”.

   His client is one Frederick Summers, a cool piece of work, wealthy, patrician, attractive, and cultured and anxious to investigate his fiancé Sylvia West— No object on earth is so rigged with weary sound than the face of a beautiful woman, and with Sylvia it was the quality of the face not the measurement of it. She did not look like anyone else, she looked like herself.

   There isn’t much to go on, either. Reasonably a man engaged to a woman might expect her to have a history, family, even distant family, but Sylvia appeared out of nowhere a year earlier, became engaged to Summers, the story she told him about who she was is a lie, and Summers wants to know the real story. He’s the scion of big money, oil money, and he wants no surprises popping up after he marries.

   She writes poetry, indifferently, she speaks Chinese, but with a child’s vocabulary, she can mimic a faint British accent, she is well read, she has a passion for roses, and she has a peculiar way of phrasing things almost as if English wasn’t her first language.

   Summers simply wants to know who she is, and he wants Macklin to do the job without ever meeting her. He doesn’t want her suspicious he is looking into her past. If she knew it would be the end of their engagement.

   If it sounds like a variation on Laura it is. Macklin is going to delve into Sylvia’s past and the more he learns, the deeper the mystery and the closer he comes to being obsessed with and then in love with the woman and the mystery.

   E. V. Cunningham was novelist Howard Fast who was a bestselling mainstream writer of books like April Morning, and wrote science fiction (under his own name) and a number of mysteries under various names, including Mirage which became a suspense film with Gregory Peck and Walter Matthau. His later books as Cunningham featured a Japanese-American policeman, but he also wrote a series of suspense novels all named after women, Sally, Penelope, Sylvia… several of which were filmed (all three of those named), and were often book club and Reader’s Digest choices.

   Sylvia was filmed with Carroll Baker in the title role, George Maharis as Macklin, and Peter Lawford as Summers. It looks pretty much like a television production, and features a cast of stars who often appeared on television as the suspects Macklin encounters while digging into Sylvia’s past. It’s not bad, but Maharis never quite registers as tough, world weary, and cynical as Macklin in the book, and Baker, a fine actress normally, is far too earthy and real for the mysterious Sylvia, who to be fair, turns out to be closer to Baker at books end as Macklin falls for the real Sylvia as opposed to the shadow Summer’s wants to possess.

   Despite how it might sound, I like the movie. It at least tries to be something more, thanks to the script by Boehm and Fast. It’s just that the structure of the movie is too much of a gimmick to sustain the promise of the novel. It becomes one of those which star will pop up next projects that too many films devolved into in that period.

   And Macklin does finally solve both the mystery of Sylvia, and because Fast, under any name, is too good not to, it is Alan Macklin who proves to be more interested in being a decent human than a detective, and pretty much stamps all over all the Archers, Marlowes, and others who put loyalty to a client above the law and all else.

   Sylvia is almost an anti-private eye novel. The ending throws the whole genre for a loop.

   It’s that ending that makes this something more than just another hard boiled private eye novel, and a good one at that. Sylvia is ultimately a novel about a private eye and not a private eye novel.

   “… touching life where it hurts most and bleeds most, because as rotten and sadistic and superstitious as our race (human) is, we are also the only thing the world can promise, and not a bad promise at that.”

   

   

ONE BODY TOO MANY. Paramount Pictures, 1944. Jack Haley, Jean Parker, Bela Lugosi, Blanche Yurka, Lyle Talbot, Douglas Fowley. Director: Frank McDonald.

   There’s no way of getting around it. One Body Too Many owes more than a lot to The Cat and the Canary, the movie with Bob Hope and Paulette Goddard that came along five years earlier. Not that that’s a bad thing, but any movie reviewer worth his salt has to point out things like this.

   In this one leading actor Jack Haley plays an insurance salesman who finally has an appointment with a wealthy recluse to sell him a $200,00 life insurance policy. Little does he know that by the time he gets there, the man is dead and his relatives, almost all of whom he had despised in his lifetime, have gathered around to hear the reading of his will.

   All they get, however, is a preliminary statement from the lawyer, which in essence says that if he is buried above ground, the estate is divided one way, but if he is buried under ground, the bequests will be distributed in the reverse order. (Don’t ask.) More, all the relatives are required to stay in the house together until such time as the burial occurs.

   When he arrives, Haley is mistaken for the PI the attorney has hired the watch the body, the PI having been met and disposed of just as he arrived. This causes a lot of happy confusion, as you might expect, before that particular matter is all straightened out. In the meantime, Haley and Jean Parker, the dead man’s favorite niece, have become attracted to each other, and he decides to stick around to give her what assistance he can.

   There are lots of hidden passages, sliding panels, trap doors, and eyes that watch rooms through the eyes of paintings on the wall, not to mention a sudden thunderstorm and lights that go on and off. The body itself seems to come and go at will, and the butler, superbly played by Bela Lugosi, acts even more suspicious than the other relatives, a greedy lot all.

   Jack Haley, I think, was underrated as a comedian, probably because he never goes as over the top as a Bob Hope, say, or heaven forbid, at least as far as this film is concerned, a Red Skelton. Haley is far more subtle here than either of those gentlemen, and he’s a huge factor in making the movie as much of a success as it is, if this is the kind of movie you like as much as I do. That said, at 75 minutes, it runs maybe 15 minutes too long. If it had been up to me, although I was only two at the time, I’d have trimmed the scene in which the coffin, with Haley inside, was tossed in the pool. Your opinion may vary.

   

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