Mystery movies

THE MURDER OF DR. HARRIGAN. Warner Brothers, 1936. Clue Club #6. Ricardo Cortez, Kay Linaker, John Eldredge, Mary Astor, Joseph Crehan. Based on the novel From This Dark Stairway, by Mignon G. Eberhart. Director: Frank McDonald.

   Murder in a hospital has always been a staple of detective fiction, but perhaps even more so in the Golden Age of Detection, and here’s a prime example. Even before Dr. Harrigan’s body in found in a jammed elevator, there are all kinds of signs that this is a hospital to stay out of, no matter how sick you are.

   Doctors light up cigarettes wills-nilly, for example, no matter where they are in the building, patients get up and wander around, including to each other’s rooms. Even worse, the sick man that Dr. Harrigan was going to operate on — and was last seen wheeling down the hall to an operating room — in a suit and tie yet — has completely disappeared. He’s nowhere in the building.

   In the book, the detective of record is Sarah Keate, a nurse who was in seven of Mignon Eberhart’s novels, the last one appearing in 1954. In the movie, though, renamed Sally Keating (Kay Linaker), she doesn’t really do any detective work.

   That’s left to the police and her would-be boy friend, Dr. Lambert (Ricardo Cortez) — he seems a lot more interested in marrying her than she is the other way around — and there are plenty of suspects to choose from, whether doctors, other nurses, patients, family members of all of the above, all acting very mysteriously.

   Unfortunately, there’s no particular reason for picking on the actual killer to be the killer. I’m willing to wager that the book was a whole lot better in this regard. You watch the movie for non-stop action and banter, not for niceties of clues and actual detective work.

PostScript:   The TCM website says that “Some of the other titles bearing the Clue Club stamp are The Florentine Dagger (1935), While the Patient Slept (1935), The White Cockatoo (1935), The Case of the Velvet Claws (1936) and The Case of the Black Cat (1936).”

NINE LIVES ARE NOT ENOUGH. Warner Brothers, 1941. Ronald Reagan, Joan Perry, James Gleason, Howard da Silva, Faye Emerson , Edward Brophy, Peter Whitney, Charles Drake. Based on the novel by Jerome Odlum. Director: A. Edward Sutherland.

   You can call me confused if you want, but the leading character in this film is a brash young reporter named Matt Sawyer, while the Kirkus review for the book says the reporter’s name is Johnny O’Sullivan, and Al Hubin in Crime Fiction IV says the leading character is somebody called John Steele, a fellow that in a review Kirkus did of another of Odlum’s books they call a PI. There is no PI in the movie.

   No matter. Maybe someone can straighten me out on this, even though Jerome Odlum as a mystery writer is all but unknown today. I’ll stick to the film in the rest of the review, and I’ll bet you’ve already matched a young brash Ronald Reagan with the Matt Sawyer fellow I mentioned up there in the first paragraph.

   Sawyer is the kind of guy who when he calls in a story he gets a small detail wrong, and when the detail (murder vs suicide) somehow gets into the headline of the paper he’s working for, it doesn’t make his editor (Howard da Silva) very happy at all.

   Sawyer does have a point, however. The dead man is supposed to have shot himself, but the body is found with his hands in his pockets. But what is the coroner to think when the door is locked and the windows shut tight? It has to be suicide.

   Sawyer has to depend on to a pair of agreeable cops (one of whom is played of course by James Gleason) to help him out of the jam he’s in. That he also falls immediately in love with the dead man’s daughter (Joan Perry) causes some complications.

   Much of the film is played for laughs. The second cop always seems to have his tongue hanging out for his next cold brew, for example, and Peter Whitney (his film debut) plays a hulk of a boy-man with limited (shall we say) mental capabilities.

   As always seems the case in movies like this, the first half plays better than the second. When the producer and director are forced to realize that they also have to solve the case, they also start to get serious. Well, at least a little. They can always fill in any gaps in the plot with a lot of action. They locked room aspect, for example, is covered in one throwaway line. Blink for a moment and you’ve missed it.

   I enjoyed this one, though. You may, too, if you allow your sense of humor to prevail. It won’t make much of any other kind of sense, but it’s still a movie that’s fun to watch.


FISTFUL OF DIAMONDS. Balcázar Producciones Cinematográficas, Spain-Italy, 1967. Original title (Spanish): El hombre del puño de oro, Also released as L’umo dal pugno d’oro (Italian). Germán Cobos, Erika Blanc, Frank Russell, Tomás Torres, Screenplay: Mario Colluci as Ray Colloway. Director: Jaime Jesús Balcázar.

   In 1967 the Eurospy craze was already running a bit thin, and this film with Eurospy star Germán Cobos (often playing Danny O’Connor aka Agent Z-55 in his spy outings) was designed to open up a new venue, the hard boiled American private eye. It did not, but for what it is, this is well worth your time.

   Cobos is New York private eye Joe Galligan, a hard-drinking, hard-hitting, and hard-punching example of the breed with a soft heart for his pre-teen black neighborhood girl/secretary and kids in general. We meet him as he is about to be hired by beautiful Linda Moore (Erika Blanc) whose sister was killed the by gangster Norman Krasner (Frank Russell), who double-crossed her and his other partners and ambushed them at a buy in where the price was a suitcase full of diamonds. Erika wants revenge and the ice.

   Galligan (not Callahan as one review on IMDb has it, and Clark in the English language version for no real reason) accompanies Linda to the house where the exchange was supposed to be made and is waylaid by two of Krasner’s thugs. They take the girl and leave him unconscious.

   Determined to get the girl back, Galligan finds the cops won’t talk about the well-connected Krasner, and neither will the usual informers, but he discovers Krasner is in Istanbul and heads that way.

   In Istanbul Galligan ties up with Joy Boy (Tomás Toros) his old friend, a Texas-born Hispanic who owns a club, and together they set out to recover the girl and the diamonds, and shut down Krasner.

   Despite some eighteen-wheeler worthy plot holes and a title song that may keep you from watching the film (the score is great otherwise), this is good private eye stuff, with Cobos a likable and not too superhuman sleuth, Blanc beautiful and smart, and Russell a fine villain wielding a South African sjambok to make his point.

   The Turkish scenery is handsomely filmed, there are some first-rate fight scenes including a comic one in Joy Boy’s club, and a deadly serious one in a boatyard at night. The ending is a humdinger with a spectacular setting even if it is a bit contrived, and a surprisingly, but satisfyingly brutal, somber final note.

   Find it with subtitles if you can; the dubbing on the English language version is terrible. Thanks to YouTube, the complete Italian version is below, at least for now:

DEAD AGAIN. Paramount Pictures, 1991. Kenneth Branagh, Andy Garcia, Derek Jacobi, Emma Thompson (and Robin Williams). Director: Kenneth Branagh.

   A California home for orphans and indigent children asks a breezy young PI named Mike Church to investigate a strange intruder-visitor there, an equally young woman who is unable to speak, with no memory of who she is, but who has the most violent nightmares after she barricades herself inside her room at night.

   With the aid of a friendly hypnotist, together they discover that one of her past lives has apparently converged upon her present one, with an old murder case that made headlines in 1949 at the core of the matter. There are a couple of other twists to come, neither one of which were expected (by me) at all.

   This is an utterly marvelous motion picture, a true Gothic neo-noir, but one that I’m sure I would have missed altogether if it weren’t for the private eye trapping. Karma-freak or not, don’t make the same mistake. And while this is Branagh’s movie all the way through, it’s also the first time I have seen Emma Thompson in action. What a revelation as an actor she is. It won’t be the last time I’ll see her in a movie, I can assure you of that.

PostScript:   Absolutely incidentally, and for no extra fee, this motion picture also contains the greatest advertisement for non-smoking that you can ever imagine.

— Reprinted from Nothing Accompliced #4, November 1993, slightly revised.

THE FALCON IN HOLLYWOOD. RKO Radio Pictures,1944. Tom Conway, Barbara Hale, Veda Ann Borg, Sheldon Leonard, Frank Jenks, Joan Brooks, Rita Corday. Based upon the character created by Michael Arlen. Director: Gordon Douglas.

   Tom Lawrence, also known as The Falcon, thinks he’s going on vacation in California, but he should have known better. With the able assistance of a very shapely taxi driver (Veda Ann Borg), he makes quick work of this case of murder on the movie set.

   It’s hopeless to criticize the brainlessness of the plot, or at least what passes for detective work in the solution of which, but it takes only three little words to explain why this movie is worth watching, and I think I’ll repeat them:

   Veda Ann Borg.

NOTE:   Is it possible that this was the highlight of her [Veda Ann Borg’s] career? Here are some of the other movies she made: Accomplice (1946), Big Jim McLain (1952), Big Town (1947), Blonde Savage (1947), and Revenge of the Zombies (1943). Since I’ve seen only one of these, I can’t give you a definitive answer to the question, but from the titles, I’m inclined to say yes.

— Reprinted from Nothing Accompliced #4, November 1993, slightly revised.

MURDER BY DEATH. Columbia Pictures, 1976. Eileen Brennan, Truman Capote, James Coco (Milo Perrier), Peter Falk (Sam Diamond), Alec Guinness, Elsa Lanchester (Jessica Marbles), David Niven (Dick Charleston), Peter Sellers (Sidney Wang), Maggie Smith (Dora Charleston), Nancy Walker, Estelle Winwood. Title drawings by Charles Addams. Screenplay: Neil Simon. Director: Robert Moore.

   It was a dark and stormy night. Five of the world’s greatest detectives have been summoned, and collectively they’re given a million dollar challenge: solve a murder about to happen, or face the fact that their host, Mr. Lionel Twain, is actually the world’s greatest criminologist.

   For about 20 minutes this is an absolutely devastating parody of Sam Spade, Charlie Chan, Nick & Nora Charles, Miss Marple and M. Hercule Poirot, full of puns, one-liners and sight gags — about one a minute as a conservative estimate. Guinness as the blind butler, Bensonmum, is nothing but terrific.

   It’s tough to maintain a pace like this, however, as bits and pieces do not a story make, and the last hour simply runs out of witty things to say. The cinematic version of the traditional detective story is an awfully easy target to play around with, but in my opinion, Neil Simon, giving it all he had, wound up and missed.

— Reprinted from Nothing Accompliced #4, November 1993.


ENTER ARSENE LUPIN. Universal Pictures, 1944. Charles Korvin, Ella Raines, J. Carroll Naish, George Dolenz, Gale Sonddergard, Miles Mander. Screenplay by Bertram Millhauser, based on the character created by Maurice Leblanc. Directed by Ford Beebe.

   Charles Korvin’s first outing as Arsene Lupin, and the third American film to feature the character, puts him in such good company with John Barrymore and Melvin Douglas who essayed the character before him.

   In Enter Arsene Lupin, Korvin is aboard the Orient Express in the guise of Raoul D’Andressy to steal the Kanares Emerald, but when he sees the owner, Anastasia ‘Stacie’ Kanares (Ella Raines, and well he might have second thoughts as she exudes sex appeal here) he returns the jewel, much to the disgust of his servant Armand Dubose (George Dolenz: “Women, it’s always women.”).

   Inspired by Stacie, Lupin changes his plans and heads to England, where Inspector Ganimard (J. Carroll Naish) soon follows as Lupin begins denuding the nations museums.

Ganimard: “Lupin, he is tall thin, short fat, slight stocky, fair and dark.”

British Police Sergeant: “Well, if you want me I’ll be in out over and under the nearest pub.”

   But Ganimard has an inspiration regarding Lupin’s favorite wine and finds six dozen cases were sold at auction to one Raoul D’Andressy. In the meantime, Lupin, driving to Wainbridge Manor to see Stacie, is just in time to rescue her when her brakes give out at speed on a steep hill. She invites him to meet her British cousins, Bessie (Gale Sonddergard) and Major Charles Seagrave (Miles Mander), who inform him Stacie is suffering a mental breakdown after the loss of her grandfather Kanares and believes she is still in possession of the emerald that was stolen on the Orient Express.

   Lupin is of course suspicious since he stole and returned the emerald himself, and the next day when Stacie invites him to go fishing and he finds a deadly viper in her picnic basket he is certain her cousin and her husband are out to gaslight her, murder her, and steal the emerald, leaving him only one solution, to steal the emerald first.

   An act complicated when Ganimard shows up on his doorstep just after he has hung the real Rembrandt he stole in a frame that held a cheap print. Lupin is left playing a game of cat and mouse as well as snakes and ladders to outwit Ganimard (“No one outwits Ganimard but Ganimard himself.”), steal the emerald, and keep the cousins from murdering Stacie.

   Korvin makes a properly suave and European Lupin, with his exchanges with his exasperated valet and partner in crime Dolenz full of quiet wit.

Lupin: “I was born with a conscience.”

Dubose: “A conscience, what is that?”

Lupin: “The ability to know right from wrong.”

Dubose: Whistles “Sounds like a terrible handicap to me, Msieu.”

Lupin: “Luckily I had the strength to overcome it.”

   While it can’t compare with the original Arsene Lupin with Barrymore and his brother Lionel as Ganimard, it’s a charming B-programmer, running at around sixty-five minutes, and wittily scripted by Bertram Millhauser. Whether Universal ever intended it as a series or not, it’s a shame it wasn’t picked up. Korvin was ideal as Lupin, whether in ascot or top hat, cape, and tails, and the film has more than enough twists and turns for any two films of its length.

   The romantic scenes with Raines have real snap to them, and if the cat and mouse play with Naish isn’t in the same class with the two Barrymores, it is still fun to watch between the Columboesque but capable sleuth and the suave gentleman thief, the twists coming right to the final shot.


MURDER AT THE VANITIES. Paramount, 1934. Carl Brisson, Victor McLaglin, Jack Oakie, Kitty Carlisle, Jessie Ralph, Charles Middleton. Written by Carey Wilson and Joseph Gollomb. Directed by Mitchell Leisen.

   A backstage Musical/Mystery so strikingly off-beat and off-color one can quickly forget how dreadful it really is.

   Charles Middleton plays Homer Boothby, a hammy actor who may have gunned down Gertrude Michael, who was blackmailing young lovers Carl Brisson and Kitty Carlisle (two romantic leads who seem singularly colorless even in a black & white movie) threatening to deport sweet old Jessie Ralph, abusing flighty maid Beryl Wallace, and threatening distaff detective Gail Patrick, who had the goods on her.

   Got that? Well pay it no mind because the real leads here are Victor McLaglen and Jack Oakie, who play Bluff Lust and Brainless Cupidity to perfection, as a tough cop and a harried stage manager trying to solve the murder while the show goes on — as it must, you know.

   Vanities offers a plethora of suspects, a tiresome plot and some impressive proscenium-bound production numbers, of which the most memorable is the musical ode to Marijuana, capped off when a cute young thing emerging nude from a Marijuana blossom (!) finds blood dripping from the catwalk down over her bare shoulders.

   With all this going for it, one can almost overlook the fact that you don’t really give a damn about the bland young lovers or the cardboard suspects. Just sit back and enjoy the show, folks.


THE MAN BEHIND THE MASK. MGM, UK, 1936. Re-released as Behind the Mask. Hugh Williams, Jane Baxter, Ronald Ward, Maurice Schwartz, George Merritt, Henry Oscar, Donald Calthorpe, Kitty Kelly. Screenplay by Jack Byrd, Syd Courtney, Ian Hay & Stanley Haynes, based on the novel The Chase of the Golden Plate by Jacques Fitrelle (sic). Directed by Michael Powell.

   This short but fast moving and complicated thriller based on a novel by American mystery writer Jacques Futrelle (his name misspelled in the titles) has a better pedigree than most, with legendary director Michael Powell (half of the famous Archers production company with Emric Pressberger, and director of Black Narcissus and The 49th Parallel among others) at the helm and novelist Ian Hay working on the dialogue.

   Nonetheless it is strictly B movie material, though slickly done and masterly paced so you never have time to ask questions as the novel’s complex plot and myriad mixed identities and double crosses unfold. It plays out like an Edgar Wallace thriller more than a Jacques Futrelle mystery.

   Lord Slade (Peter Cawthorpe) is giving a masked ball to show off the prize of his collection, the golden shield of Khan. The police are in attendance in the person of Chief Inspector Mallory (George Merritt) dressed as Frederick the Great, and a mysterious fellow dressed as Voltaire (Henry Oscar) playing chess with him as they watch the shield.

   Also in attendance are Lady June Slade (Jane Baxter) his daughter, the mysterious East Indian Harrah (Gerald Fielding), Dr. Walpole (Donald Calthorp) the famous surgeon, and Marion Weeks (Kitty Kelly) the doctor’s wisecracking assistant and housekeeper (“I’m dressed as Shirley Temple as Madame Dubarry.”).

   Not in attendance are Lord Slade’s wastrel son Jimmy (Ronald Ward) who argued with his father over money earlier and threatened to hold up a bank to get money if he had to, or Nicholas Barclay (Hugh Williams) a dashing pilot who is in love with June, and disliked by this lordship.

   June and Nicky have plans though; he’s to wear a disguise and slip into the ball, and at midnight when the lights go down he and June will slip away and get married with a special license he has obtained. But before he can even don his costume, he’s shot by an intruder in a mask, an intruder he believes to be Jimmy because of a triangle tattoo on his wrist, a tattoo that Jimmy, Nicky, and their dead friend Allan Hayden (Reginald Tate) all got back in school.

   With Nicky out, a man dressed as the Red Death enters the ball with Nicky’s invitation from June and the help of the butler aiding in the elopement. When the lights go down and everyone unmasks he steals the shield, and takes the car with June in it, being wounded in the shoulder by a detective whom he runs over as he escapes. June knows he isn’t Nicky, but is now a helpless captive.

   Meanwhile the mysterious Harrah travels to the estate of the Master (Maurice Schwartz), the astrologer who paid to have the shield stolen, but who has been double crossed by the thief and by Nadja (Morya Fagan) a follower to report his failure.

   Soon enough Jimmy is cleared, but Nicky didn’t go to the police thinking Jimmy shot him and instead went to be patched up by Dr. Walpole, and now the police want Nicky for the theft and running over the policeman and they know the thief was wounded in the shoulder, while the only clue Nicky has to the real thief is a tie he left behind sold by a haberdashery in a poorer part of London.

   From then on it’s a chase with Nicky, Jimmy, the Dr,, and wisecracking Miss Weeks pursuing the thief and Nadja to rescue June and return the shield, the police after Nicky with the Dr. in tow, and Harrah and the Master’s gang pursuing Nadja and the thief for the shield and eliminating anyone in their way, and when the policeman dies, Nicky is wanted for murder.

   The film is a fast paced diversion, confusing at times, fun with a solid cast, but mostly of interest for the direction of Michael Powell and being based on a novel by Jacques Futrelle (albeit one far inferior to his short stories).

   The real highlight is some brighter than usual dialogue and the scenes in the Master’s observatory, giving the film an almost science fictional feel with Maurice Schwartz, eyes hypnotic and mad, and hair in the style of mad scientist everywhere since Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, part Mabuse, part Fu Manchu, and madder than a hatter. It’s a little forgotten gem among mad villains.

   A nod also to Richard Tate as Allan Hayden, who, sporting a black fedora and checkered overcoat, looks uncannily like the illustrations of Leslie Charteris’s The Saint that ran in Thriller. He’s good as an old school tie type who hasn’t quite forgotten the form.

   The ending is a little rushed, and there isn’t so much as a final embrace for Nicky and June, at least not on screen, but it’s satisfying in its own way.

Editorial Comment:   Most of the available prints of this film are less than an hour long, but this one (which I haven’t watched in its entirely) claims to be 1:33 long. If so, then IMDb does not know about it, stating that the original version is believed to be lost:


YANKEE FAKIR. Republic, 1947. Douglas Fowley, Joan Woodbury, Clem Bevans, Ransom Sherman, Frank Reicher, Marc Lawrence. Written by Richard S. Conway and Mindret Lord. Directed by W. Lee Wilder.

   I was drawn to this because I wanted to see if Douglas Fowley really played the hero, and while I wasn’t thrilled, I at least kept watching; along the way I discovered a fascinating bit of background and much to wonder at.

   For one thing: Whence that title? Did they imagine folks would beat down the doors to see something called Yankee Fakir? And whence “fakir”? I’ve never met an actual fakir, but they’re well-nigh ubiquitous in The Arabian Nights, so I know one when I see one and there just ain’t any here in this movie.

   For another thing: This was released by Republic, Hollywood’s factory of low-budget thrills, but it’s an independent production by the semi-legendary W. Lee Wilder, older brother of Billy Wilder (you may have heard of him) and auteur of The Great Flamarian, Phantom from Space, Killers from Space, The Snow Creature and Man Without a Body.So you know what to expect. Yankee has none of the pace and polish one expects from a Republic western; in fact, it looks more like something that escaped from PRC or Monogram, what with Joan Woodbury and Douglas Fowley handling the leads.

   I’ve mentioned Douglas Fowley here before: Doc Holliday on TV’s Wyatt Earp; slow-burning director in Singin’ in the Rain; slimy bad guy in dozens of cheap westerns and the actual director of Macumba Love. That’s the guy. Here he loses his familiar snarky moustache and dons a flattering hairpiece as a traveling salesman who falls for a Border Ranger’s daughter and turns detective when someone does the old man in.

   Republic could have made a halfway decent B-western out of that — in fact they probably did, more than once — but Wilder pretty much fritters it away, with comic relief, a cute kid, local color, more comedy (I use the term loosely) and plot complications that pretty much go nowhere. Marc Lawrence, a figure associated with noir in general (and The Asphalt Jungle in particular) adds a moment of interest as a mysterious nasty, but not enough of them, even in a quickie like this.

   But beyond the fascination of seeing a confirmed miscreant like Fowley cast solidly against type, Yankee Fakir raised an eyebrow — not when I watched it, but when I went to research it and encountered the story of the writer, Mindret Lord. There’s not room enough to recount it all here, but I suggest you look him up on IMDB for a story much more intriguing than this feeble movie warrants.

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