Mystery movies

CURTAIN AT EIGHT. Majestic Pictures, 1933. C. Aubrey Smith, Dorothy Mackaill, Paul Cavanagh, Sam Hardy, Marion Shilling, Russell Hopton, Natalie Moorhead, Hale Hamilton, Ruthelma Stevens. Screenplay: Edward T. Lowe. Director: E. Mason Hopper.

   This rather wretched murder mystery movie has only one thing going for it: C. Aubrey Smith in a rather unusual role for him, that of Jim Hanvey, the detective character created by Octavus Roy Cohen. Although the credits don’t mention it, but Curtain at Eight, the movie, was based on Cohen’s book The Backstage Mystery (Appleton, 1930), and what the resemblance is, I’d like to say slim to none.

   Unless, that is, there is a monkey in the book — or rather a chimp — although none of the characters in the movie know the difference. If you cant stand chimps in movies any more than I can, avoid this film. I stuck it out, though, so I can’t follow my own advice, then why should you?

   Murdered on the stage as they are celebrating his birthday is actor and notorious womanizer Wylie Thornton (Paul Cavanagh) — one of those scenes when the lights go off and wouldn’t you know it, a shot rings out. There are more than the usual number of suspects, and before the movie is over, the dopey homicide detective on the case (Sam Hardy) has locked up almost all of them, along with another one who simply wanders in at about the two-thirds mark.

   Thankfully also on the case is Jim Hanvey, played by Aubrey Smith as a tall, lanky, homespun (aw, shucks) sort of guy, with a shank of unruly hair — a far cry from Smith’s usual role as a British officer and a gentleman. His portrayal of Hanvey is also a far cry from that of Guy Kibbee, who was the star of Jim Hanvey, Detective (Republic, 1937). To me, Kibbee sounds as though he’s be more appropriate as the character, as Kevin Burton Smith describes him on his Thrilling Detective website: “…full-time good ol’ boy. He’s fat, slow-moving, [with] fishy eyes…”

   Besides the chimp, Curtain at Eight is plagued by a script that could have used a lot more time to stretch out and introduce the real players in the story, not the chimp and not the dopey guy from homicide. Between the two, the two must take up half of the movie’s sixty minutes running time, or did it only seem that way?

   I’ll bet bits and pieces of the movie came from the book, picked up from here and there and strung together in some hope of a coherent mystery plot, and not succeeding. Maybe even the chimp came from the book, but I hope not.

   As for director E. Mason Hopper, he had a long career making silent films, but he made only one more with sound, the truly abysmal Hong Kong Nights (First Division Pictures, 1935), a spy film in which one of the major stars, the hero’s good buddy and constant sidekick, simply disappears half way through the movie, never to be seen or mentioned again. I watched it a short while ago, and I’m almost embarrassed to say that I did.

   The screenwriter, though, Edward T. Lowe, went to much better things, including worthwhile entries in the Charlie Chan, Bulldog Drummond, and Sherlock Holmes series, not to mention a couple of Universal horror movies in the mid-1940s.

Note:   For Dan Stumpf’s comments on this same film, which I didn’t read again until just now myself, go here. We clearly watched the same movie, but he seems to have found more charm in it than I did.

Reviewed by JONATHAN LEWIS:         

FOUR FLIES ON GREY VELVET. Marianne Productions / Seda Spettacoli, Italy, 1971; original title: Quattro Mosche di Velluto Grigio. Paramount Pictures, US, 1972. Michael Brandon, Mimsy Farmer, Jean-Pierre Marielle, Bud Spencer, Screenwriter-director:: Dario Argento.

   Dario Argento’s giallo film, Four Flies on Grey Velvet, is one strange cinematic experience, one best appreciated after midnight. Alternately creepy and surprisingly funny, the movie stars two American actors, Michael Brandon and cult favorite Mimsy Farmer, as a married Italian couple inexplicably plunged into a nightmarish world of murder and paranoia.

   The movie has both dark humor and a psychedelic, dreamlike quality buttressed by an early 1970s rock soundtrack. It’s as if Hitchcock, Pink Floyd, and an experimental theater company decided to make a thriller.

   The movie wastes little time getting right into the heart of the action. Roberto Tobias (Brandon) is a rock musician who finds himself being followed by a strange man. In an unsettling sequence, Tobias ends confronting the man, killing the lurker with a switchblade knife. Soon after, Tobias and his wife, Nina (Farmer), begin to receive threatening notes in the “I know you killed a man, Roberto,” variety.

   But if it’s not money the anonymous stalker wants, then what is it? And why? And what the hell do four flies to do to with it? I’m not going to give away any spoilers, but let me just say this: those little flies are the big elephants in the room. In the end, it doesn’t make all that much sense. But the journey’s the fun part.

   Look for both John-Pierre Marielle in a captivating and comedic portrayal as a down-on-his-luck, flamboyantly gay private investigator and for Bud Spencer as one of Roberto’s friends.

Reviewed by DAN STUMPF:         

UP IN THE AIR. Monogram, 1940. Frankie Darro, Mantan Moreland, Tristram Coffin, Marjorie Reynolds, Lorna Gray. Written by Edmond Kelso. Directed by Howard Bretherton.

   A painless if uninspiring hour-killer from Monogram, with the pleasure of watching Marjorie Reynolds and especially Lorna (“Vultura”) Gray, plus the always-entertaining Mantan Moreland.

   The story revolves around murder(s) at a radio station, and when I say “revolves” you should appreciate that the narrative spins its wheels quite a lot but never actually seems to get too far. Alluring Lorna Gray plays a bitchy singer who is, alas, the first to go. A couple of loud and none-too-bright cops show up to investigate, but the real sleuthing is done by the team of Frankie Darro and Mantan Moreland.

   The word “team” is key to the interest and charm of this movie and the others in this low-budget series, where Frankie and Mantan took turns playing unskilled workers in crappy jobs that invariably got them mixed up in murder. Mantan was always the reluctant throttle to Frankie’s racing engine, but it was he who provided the laughs and charm with his snappy patter, comic timing and — in this film anyway — snappy one-man dance numbers.

   The concept of interracial-but-equal crime-solvers may have broken some cultural ground back then, but it didn’t catch on; Monogram was a never a trend-setting studio after all, generally content to pick up on well-worn themes and discarded series from the major studios, like Cisco Kid and Charlie Chan, where Moreland again showed up to good advantage.

   But it’s interesting to note that they trotted it out decades before Culp & Cosby in I Spy when nobody was looking. I’m not saying they did particularly well with it, but the film passes painlessly as I say, and the interplay between Moreland and Darro is often fun to watch, especially when they trot out one of Mantan’s “infinite talk” routines.

   To anyone interested in learning more about this ought-to-be-legendary black comedian, I recommend Michael H. Price’s Mantan the Funny Man (Midnight Marquee Press, 2007). It’s written by an old white guy, but offers some worthwhile insights into race relations in the middle of the last century, and it takes a close and appreciative look at movies most critics wouldn’t give the time of day to.

NAVY SPY. Grand National Pictures, 1937. Conrad Nagel, Eleanor Hunt, Judith Allen, Jack Doyle, Phil Dunham, Don Barclay, Howard Lang, Crauford Kent. Directors: Crane Wilbur & Joseph H. Lewis (the latter uncredited and unconfirmed, according to IMDb).

   According to the American Film Institute, Joseph Lewis was the director of retakes. I haven’t checked it out any further than this, so if anyone knows more, you can tell me about it in the comments. The reason it is worth mentioning is that if so, this movie would be Lewis’s first director’s role.

   But it isn’t much of one, I have to admit, the movie, I mean. I enjoyed Yellow Cargo, the first of four low-budget films starring Conrad Nagel and Eleanor Hunt as a pair of federal agents.

   In that one their task was bringing to justice an illegal immigrant racket, and reviewed here, but while the two stars do their best, there’s not much they can do with a story as weak as this one is, the second in the series.

   Which has to do with a scientist with a formula for a new advanced fuel, for airplanes, I believe, who is lured off a ship by a femme fatale and straight into the arms of a gang of bad guys. Problem is, the formula exists only in the head of the kidnapped scientist, and nothing is going to make him talk. And what kind of security would allow a note from the lady to be brought in, and the doctor be allowed to walk right off the boat?

   Part of what was intended to make this amusing and fun to watch is that Nagel’s character is determined to keep Hunt’s character off the case, simply because she’s female. Bobbie Reynolds is not a woman to be denied easily, however, and at every stage of the way, she’s there before Alan Reynolds (Nagel) or just behind him, ready and able to lend more than moral support.

   But otherwise the chase is dull and uninteresting, and not even the witty byplay between the two leads can make a souffle out of nothing more than good wishes.


PHANTOM LADY. Universal Pictures, 1944. Franchot Tone, Ella Raines, Alan Curtis, Aurora Miranda, Thomas Gomez, Fay Helm, Elisha Cook Jr. Based on the novel by Cornell Woolrich. Director: Robert Siodmak.

   [Phantom Lady, based on the novel by Cornell Woolrich] is a handsomely staged but wildly improbable tale of an architect (Curtis) who is wrongly convicted of his wife’s murder and of his Girl Friday’s attempt to track down the real murderer.

   Curtis is, as usual, bland, and G .F. Raines overacts (something of a feat for someone with very modest acting talents), but Tone has some good scenes as a charmer with a flaw and Elisha Cook’s murder is well-staged. At its best, Woolrich’s world in which shadows seem to pulsate with threats and menace is splendidly captured in this uneven film with its uneasy blend of glibness and implicit peril. Woolrich can’t be beat for texture and atmosphere, and Siodmak and his team have managed to get some of that on film.

— Reprinted from The MYSTERY FANcier, Vol. 6, No. 4, July-August 1982.

MEET MR. CALLAGHAN. Eros Films, UK, 1954. Derrick de Marney, Harriette Johns, Peter Neil, Adrienne Corri, Larry Burns, Trevor Reid, Delphi Lawrence. Based on the novel The Urgent Hangman by Peter Cheyney. Director: Charles Saunders.

   Every once in a while, if you watch enough old movies on DVD, even the most obscure ones, you run across one that you enjoy so much you’d like to let everyone know about it. Such is the case with Meet Mr. Callaghan, and luckily I do have a blog by which I can tell you, at least, about it.

   I’ve not been able to confirm that The Urgent Hangman is indeed the Peter Cheyney novel the movie’s based on — that will have to wait — but Slim Callaghan is a British PI who appears in any number of Cheyney’s novels and short stories, and at the moment one mention on IMDb is all I have to work with.

   And The Urgent Hangman is the first Slim Callaghan novel, and if it’s as good as the movie, it would be well worth reading. Callaghan is one of those PIs whom, once you hire him, just won’t let go, even if you want to fire him. He’ll do everything in the book on your behalf, even if you come to detest him, as young and beautiful Cynthia Meraulton (Harriette Johns) soon discovers, and even outside the book, as demonstrated on this case.

   Callaghan, you see, if one those PIs who believe in manipulating evidence, intimidating witnesses, bribing and double-crossing suspects and whatever else it takes. I was reminded in this regard of Perry Mason, whose actions are also often questionable but always make sense in the end. But Callaghan goes Mason the extra mile. Mason stays within the law, Callaghan skirts just on the other side of it.

   The case: Cynthia Meraulton fears that her stepfather may be murdered and she will be set up to take the blame by one of the man’s sons, who are all included in the man’s will. Red flags go up as soon as Callaghan learns that the man has been killed, and quite probably right around the time Cynthia was in his office.

   Derrick de Marney, who plays Slim Callaghan, reminded me at times of Robert Mitchum, not so much the droopy eyelids, but on occasions those too. But I’m thinking more of the laconic almost deadpan delivery, but very British in nature. It is difficult to put into words — I don’t believe I’ve come across anything like it before, and de Marney is very very good at it.

   There are also several good-looking women in this movie, including Delphi Lawrence, who plays Callghan’s secretary Effie Perkins, who unlike Sam Spade’s Effie, is not loyal, far from it.

   The detective work is very good, and the complicated plot holds together, but it’s the overall sense of good humor that really carries the day — not laugh out loud funny, but the mood is light enough to smile almost constantly.

   There was a second Slim Callaghan movie made the next year, Amazing Mr. Callaghan, said to have been based on the novel Sorry You Have Been Troubled, but that one stars Tony Wright and was made in France by another filming company altogether, which is too bad, since I’d like to see another one made by the same crew as was responsible for this one.

by Mike Tooney

SLEEPING CAR TO TRIESTE. General Film Distributors, UK, 1948; Eagle-Lion Films, US, 1949. Jean Kent, Albert Lieven, Derrick De Marney, Paul Dupuis, Rona Anderson, David Tomlinson, Bonar Colleano, Finlay Currie, Grégoire Aslan, Alan Wheatley, Hugh Burden, David Hutcheson, Claude Larue, Zena Marshall, Leslie Weston, Eugene Deckers. Writers: Clifford Grey (story), William Douglas-Home (writer), Allan MacKinnon (writer). Director: John Paddy Carstairs.

   We watch as an important diary is abducted from a wall safe in a Paris embassy and one of the staff has the misfortune to witness the theft, with fatal results. The thief passes the book to an accomplice and then suavely rejoins the party in progress. As the plot unfurls we learn that this diary contains enough explosive information to ignite another war in Central Europe.

   What our murderous book taker doesn’t count on is being double-crossed by his accomplice, who intends to sell it to the highest bidder. What our double-crossing accomplice doesn’t count on is being closely pursued by the other guy aboard the Orient Express. He has already killed once for the diary, and as we’ll see he won’t hesitate to do it again.

   For a story of murder and political intrigue, this movie has a remarkably light tone. Much of the film is taken up with amusing character interaction — even the villain seems to have a human side. That, as much as the rest of the plot, makes Sleeping Car to Trieste highly watchable.

   Both IMDb and Wikipedia inform us that Sleeping Car is a remake of a 1932 British film called Rome Express (in which, incidentally, Finlay Currie appeared as another character), with a somewhat different plot line and writers.

   Take note of the steward who can’t keep his tunic buttoned, Eugene Deckers, a Belgian actor who appeared many times in many disguises on the 1954 Ronald Howard Sherlock Holmes series, most memorably as Harry Crocker, the disappearance expert.

   Viewers might remember David Tomlinson as the father in Disney’s Mary Poppins; in Sleeping Car he’s endowed with just one brain cell more than Bertie Wooster, his unwitting interference deflecting the story in unexpected directions.

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