Mystery movies

PORT OF MISSING GIRLS. Monogram Pictures, 1938. Harry Carey, Judith Allen, Milburn Stone, Betty Compson, Matty Fain, George Cleveland. Director: Karl Brown.

   The nominal star of this minimally interesting movie is Harry Carey, but to my mind why is he still using silent film techniques — dramatic gestures, grotesque grimaces and so on — in 1938? To my mind, Milburn Stone is by far the more natural actor.

   As Della Mason (!!), a night club singer on the lam, accused of killing the manager of the joint where she’s the star attraction, Judith Allen is very pretty, but when the movie was over I couldn’t pick her out of a lineup of other young starlets at the time.

   She ends up on the cargo ship owned by Captain Storm (Carey), and on which Milburn Stone’s character is the radio operator. The kicker is that Storm, due to circumstances in his life, soon revealed, hates women. Stone, on the other hand, is most definitely attracted.

   Forced to leave the runaway singer on land, they find what other reviewers call a brothel. The code has toned the place down a lot. It looks like no brothel I was ever in ever saw depicted on the screen. A dull, bare walls sort of tourist attraction, it’s more a place for couples to stop in on a lark and see where poor women whose lives have fallen in on them are forced to live, or in Della’s case, are singing.

   There is a lot of plot shoved into this hour plus (but just a very small plus) movie. You will be happy to know that it all works out in the end.


THIS SIDE OF THE LAW Warners, 1950. Viveca Lindfors, Kent Smith, Janis Paige, Robert Douglas and John Alvin. Written by Richard Sale and Russell S. Hughes. Directed by Richard L. Bare.

   Another bonus disc thrown in by a generous dealer, a film I didn’t know I had, and one I never heard of before. Turned out to be a Warners B movie made in 1948 but not released till 1950.

   Top-billed Viveca Lindfors actually has little to do here except look pretty and puzzled while Kent Smith carries the bulk of the plot as a down & out drifter hired to impersonate a lookalike millionaire who has been missing for almost seven years and about to be declared legally dead.

   Smith is recruited by the dead man’s lawyer (played by that perennial movie schemer Robert Douglas) for reasons of his own. And I think I’ve mentioned before that in the movies when you assume someone else’s identity, it’s always a flying leap from the frying pan. In this case, it turns out that the ancestral manse is a hotbed of domestic intrigue, including the fetching Ms. Lindfors as his bewildered and broken-hearted wife, John Alvin as a resentful weakling brother, and Janis Paige as his sister-in-law, a femme fatale in the Audrey Totter /Ann Savage mode.

   One of these characters may have murdered the missing man, and it turns out the lawyer wants Smith to find out which one – or does he?

   It’s all handled efficiently, but by 1948 they were making some films noirs by rote, and this is a good example. It’s told in flashback, with lots of shadows and shady characters, but they all seem a bit perfunctory, without the resonance that typifies contemporaries like The Big Clock and Cry of the City.

   Richard Sale, the author of the piece, wrote the brilliant metaphysical novel Not Too Narrow, Not Too Deep, which became the movie Strange Cargo. He also wrote a whole lot of sub-standard pulp fiction and forgettable screenplays, which always puzzled me. I mean, I can almost understand someone like Harper Lee or J.D. Salinger writing a remarkable book and then leaving it alone, but how anyone can turn out a single great book smack in the middle of a career devoted to mediocrity mystifies my mind—much more than this movie did.

   Similarly, director Richard Bare was a low-level fixture at Warners, doing shorts and occasional B features. When Warners went into Television in the 50s, Bare went along, lending his trademark anonymity to just about every Western and PI show Warners produced in those days. And so much for him.

   Janis Paige got tired of nothing parts in Hollywood, and went to Broadway where she became a big star, then returned to the movies for an occasional character part, like the Hollywood Star making a musical version of “War and Peace” in Silk Stockings, where she gets a great number with Fred Astaire.

   As for This Side of the Law, it’s painless & watchable, done with the Warners polish of the 1940s, and while I won’t go so far as to recommend it, I will admit it made for a pleasant evening.

   Well anyway, you could do worse.

SHATTERED. MGM, 1991. Tom Berenger, Bob Hoskins, Greta Scacchi, Joanne Whalley-Kilmer, Corbin Bernsen. Screenplay: Wolfgang Petersen, based on the novel The Plastic Nightmare (Ace, 1969), by Richard Neely. Director: Wolfgang Petersen.

   I missed this one when it first came out, but I read the book, and it knocked my socks off. The movie’s just as good, I think, and based on reading the reviews and comments you can find on IMDb now, the twist at the end has apparently knocked the socks off everyone who’s seen at as well.

   But not always in a good way. Some have gone so far as to point out that the twist at the end simply doesn’t make any sense, and to tell you the truth, they’re not so very far from wrong. This is the kind of twist, though, that a reviewer can’t talk about without revealing the whole point of the movie, not without spoiler warnings, and I’ve decided not to do that, in case you haven’t seen the movie and there’s a more than even chance that someday you will.

   And I think you should.

   Here’s the basic story, though. As it so happens very often at the beginning of many a noir or neo-nour movie, a car goes off a cliff with two people inside, a husband and wife. Miraculously both survive, she with barely a scratch, he with severe injuries, including massive overall body trauma. She nurses him back to health, with the aid of hordes or doctors and surgeons.

   Unfortunately, he has a certain kind of amnesia that affects only his personal memories. He know how to do everyday kinds of things, but he can’t remember anything personal about himself nor about the people he should know, including his wife, his job, his colleagues, his friends. Nothing.

   All seems well, though, until certain incongruent details start coming to the surface. Their marriage, he is reluctantly told, was on the rocks. She was suspected of having an affair, they were constantly fighting, and he himself may have had a thing with his partner’s wife.

   He even discovers that he had hired a private detective (Bob Hoskins) to spy on his wife, and he tells the husband that perhaps that perhaps the accident was no accident at all.

   There you have it. Complicated? In a word, yes, but I *think* the details fit the ending. I will have to go back and watch this movie again to see. This is a handsome production and getting to the ending is fine — fun, in fact. But in the end it’s the ending that will make or break how you feel about this movie. If you can swallow it, you’re fine. Otherwise, not.

THE SPECKLED BAND. British & Dominions Film Corporation, UK, 1931. Lyn Harding, Raymond Massey (Sherlock Holmes), Angela Baddeley, Nancy Price, Athole Stewart (Dr. John Watson), Marie Ault (Mrs. Hudson). Based on the story “The Adventure of the Speckled Band,” by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Director: Jack Raymond.

   This was Raymond Massey’s first credited screen role, and as Sherlock Holmes, he looks and acts just like Raymond Massey. Which is not necessarily a bad thing, and in many ways he’s the best actor in the film, but as chance would have it, he never played the role again.

   Hopefully someday someone will somewhere find a complete version of this film, one that can be remastered so that it’s actually watchable. The one in general circulation is in really shoddy shape and has been cut down from what was originally may have been a 90 minute movie to one that runs less than 50. (The 90 minute figure may be incorrect, but there are many obvious jumps in the story line.)

   I don’t remember a band of gypsies camping outside the manor house in the original story where all of the action takes place, but I may be wrong about that, and I think the Indian servant is new also. The extra characters do flesh out the story some, and even more importantly, they add a few more possible suspects as to committed the mysterious murder of a young girl alone in her locked bedroom.

   What I know was not in Doyle’s tale was a front office to his lodgings in Baker Street filled with what appears to be primitive computers to which a staff of young ladies are shown busily typing in data about all sorts of crimes that have been committed in England over the years.

   Not only that, but Holmes is proud to show off a device capable of recording voices, which in the film itself was way before its time, as the primary mode of transportation are horse-drawn carriages. It is also a mystery why the device was shown only once but never to be been seen again.

   Unfortunately my knowing the solution to the crime ahead of time — as I assume most of you do, too — makes it difficult to say how effective the overall impact of the film is. It’s an interesting artifact, that’s for certain, and I’m glad I watched it, but more than that, I cannot say.


KENNETH FEARING – The Big Clock. Harcourt Brace, hardcover, 1946. A condensed version first appeared in The American Magazine, October 1946, as “The Judas Picture.” Reprinted many times, including Bantam #738, paperback, 1949; and in Crime Novels: American Noir of the 1930s and 40s, Library of America, hardcover, 1997. Also published as No Way Out (Perennial, paperback, 1987).

THE BIG CLOCK. Paramount Pictures, 1948. Ray Milland, Charles Laughton, Maureen O’Sullivan, George Macready, Rita Johnson, Elsa Lanchester Screenplay: Jonathan Latimer, based on the novel by Kenneth Fearing. Director: John Farrow.

   The other day I was in the re-reading mode, and pulled Kenneth Fearing’s 1946 novel The Big Clock off the shelf. It was well worth going back to. Clock is built very nicely around a clever gimmick that sustains it as a thriller, but there’s an undercurrent — a very subtle one — that surfaces now and again to hint that there’s more going on here than we think.

   George Stroud starts off the novel as a thoughtful hedonist; he enjoys books, paintings, colorful characters, his family, a comfortable job editing a crime magazine, good liquor and the occasional affair. One of these affairs is with Pauline Delos, the mistress of his publisher, Earl Janoth, and when Stroud is seen-but-not-recognized leaving Pauline’s place, it precipitates an argument that results in Janoth murdering Pauline.

   What follows is not so much a cat-and-mouse game as a perverse dance: Janoth sets the resources of his publishing empire to the task of finding the man seen leaving Pauline’s apartment, seeking to implicate him in the murder, and chooses Stroud to head up the search; Stroud realizes that Janoth must have killed their mutual bed-partner, but he also knows that saying so would destroy his marriage and career — and if Janoth learns Stroud’s secret, he’ll destroy more than that.

   Okay, that’s the plot gimmick: a man set to catch himself, trying to avoid getting caught, and Fearing exploits it very ably, with Stroud’s maneuvers getting ever more intricate, always quicker, as the dance picks up tempo and the net tries to close around him.

   But there’s more here: those subtle roilings below the surface; multiple narrators tell the tale, mostly Stroud, but also Janoth, his sycophantic henchman Hagen — there‘s a telling bit where Hagen wonders why anyone would buy an old painting at an antique shoppe — and there’s an oddly moving chapter narrated by Stroud’s wife, where we glimpse just how much harm Stroud’s pleasure-seeking can do.

   And then there’s the Big Clock: Fearing’s metaphor for a life without soul, a society whose unrelenting gears can brush a man or crush him: “I could beat the machine. The super-clock would go on forever; it was too massive to be stopped. But it had no brains and I did. I could escape from it. Let Janoth and Hagen perish in its wheels. They loved it.”

   But later: “I told myself it was just a tool, a vast machine, and the machine was blind. But I had not fully realized its crushing weight and power. That was insane. The machine cannot be challenged. It both creates and blots out, doing each with glacial impersonality. It measures people in the same way that it measures money, and the growth of trees, the life-span of mosquitoes and morals, the advance of time. And when the hour strikes on the big clock, that is indeed the hour, the day, the correct time. When it says a man is right, he is right, and when it finds him wrong, he is through, with no appeal.”

   Good stuff, that. And the wrap-up is equally strong. Ostensibly a happy ending, but with loose ends that keep threatening to unravel. And a final line that hits with memorable brutality. This is a thriller written by a poet, and it’s worth a look. Or two.

   Paramount filmed this in 1948, and they did a pretty creditable job of it, with typically smooth direction by John Farrow, and pluperfect performances from Ray Milland as Stroud, Charles Laughton as Janoth, icy George Macready as Hagen, and Maureen O’Sullivan (Farrow’s wife) as the long-suffering Mrs. Stroud.

   There’s also a ticklish turn by Elsa Lanchester (Laughton’s wife) as a dotty artist, and a chilling bit from Henry Morgan (Nobody’s wife) as Jeff, Laughton’s silent masseur/gunman. Jeff doesn’t speak throughout the film, but one gets the odd impression it’s because he simply sees no point in it, a neat dramatic evocation — along with arid sets and clockwork-cold line readings from Laughton and Macready — of Fearing’s subtext.

   I might add, though, that Jonathan Latimer’s screen adaptation rings some necessary-for-movies-of-that-time changes on Fearing’s story: the affair with Janoth’s mistress is replaced by an over-complicated marital mix-up that makes Stroud seem more Dagwood than Don Juan. And in the book, Janoth begins the quarrel leading up to the murder by taunting his mistress about a lesbian affair, then flies into a rage when she accuses him of “camping” with the fawning Hagen — whereupon he kills her, and later, justifying the murder to Hagen, the first thing he mentions is her bisexuality. Fearing makes the point subtly (no doubt he had to in those days) but he leaves the strong impression that this murder is more a crime of intolerance than passion.

   Well all that’s gone in the movie, replaced by more conventional stuff while director Farrow and writer Latimer drop subtle hints here and there, and though one mourns the loss a bit, I have to say no one improved things any when they re-made the story (as No Way Out) in the more permissive 1980s.


THE STRANGE CASE OF DOCTOR Rx. Universal PIctures, 1942. Patric Knowles, Lionel Atwill, Anne Gwynne, Mantan Moreland (not credited), Samuel S. Hinds, Mona Barrie, Paul Kavanaugh, Shemp Howard, Edward MacDonald, John Gallaudet. Screenplay by Clarence Upson Young. Director: William Nigh.

   A strong element of horror and Gothicism runs through this fast moving ’tec tale from Universal about amateur sleuth Jerry Church (Patric Knowles) trying to nail a crusading serial killer who signs himself Dr. Rx.

   The fifth victim of Dr. Rx, yet another criminal who escaped the law but not justice, has just died and the police headed by Captain Heard (Edward MacDonald) and his man Sweeny (Shemp Howard) are in in tither. Jerry Church is just back from South America with plans to retire to his family’s business in Boston (thus Knowles’ British accent) and sell bonds, which makes things even worse.

   Friendly rivals, Heard was counting on Church to track down this madman. Jerry’s retirement is postponed, when John Crispin (Paul Kavanaugh), brother of defense attorney Dudley Crispin (Samuel S. Hinds), who represented three of the murdered men, convinces Church to at least hear his brother out at his Long Island estate. Crispin fears for his and his wife’s (Mona Barrie) lives, and that very night Jerry finds a note from Dr. Rx warning him off posted on the steering wheel of his car.

   Persuaded to take the case, Jerry focuses on Tony Zaroni, Crispin’s latest client, a hood on trial for murder, and when he is acquitted by the jury, Zaroni doesn’t even get out of the courtroom before he collapses, pronounced dead by the mysterious Dr. Fish (Lionel Atwill in bottle thick glasses) who has been watching the trial closely. Zaroni like the other victims died of strangulation, but how was he strangled in an open courtroom surrounded by witnesses?

   Yes, it’s a miracle crime, and I thought of John Dickson Carr too, but there is no fair-play here despite misdirection, red herrings, and more than a few twists worthy of the master.

   Complicating Church’s investigation are his forgetful valet Horatio (Mantan Moreland doing the most with the usual demeaning stereotype), and a mysterious figure who seems to know his every move and broadcast them to the press.

   The latter proves to be his girl friend, mystery writer Kit Logan (Anne Gwynne) who has had his apartment bugged while he was in South America. When Jerry catches her in the apartment below his he is rightfully angry, but also realizes heloves her so they elope.

   Now, to the horror, miracle crime, and serial killer, and detective story elements we add a touch of the Thin Man theme so popular in films of the mid thirties through the forties.

   After meeting the mother of a policeman who was on the Dr. Rx case and driven mad, his health and mind destroyed by the mysterious killer, Kit wants Jerry to quit, but Zaroni’s ex partner, Ernie Paul (John Gallaudet) threatens Kit if Jerry doesn’t stay on the case to clear him. After taking Jerry for a ride in the country where, in a scene that had to be lifted from Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep, Jerry has a nice Marlowesque exchange with Paul’s moll:

    “My name’s Church, Jerry Church,” Knowles introduces himself to the blonde moll similar to Chandler’s Silver Hair, Eddie Marr’s wife. “I’m afraid you have me at a disadvantage.”

    “That’s the way to have any man.”

   Not Chandler by any means, but not bad.

   Before the final fade to black Jerry and Horatio will be kidnapped by Dr. Rx after a rainy chase through the country and he will find himself chained to an operating table being menaced by an angry ape while Horatio looks on hopelessly, and the mad Dr. Rx babbles.

   This never happened to Nick Charles or Pam North, though Pam came a lot closer to it than Nick.

   All leading to a clever trap to capture Dr. Rx at his deadly game.

   I suppose this will seem much better if like me, you first saw it on the weekend late show when you were fourteen, and caught it whenever it played since.

   Despite some missteps, the stereotype bits with Moreland (who is always better than the material), and one of those Detection Club no-nos (a unnamed South American poison) this is entertaining, with Knowles and Gwynne an attractive pair, Atwill menacing, and Jerry Church a sleuth I wouldn’t have minded encountering more than once.

   The horror elements give it the minor boost it needs, and a skilled cast and snappy screenplay do the rest. It can currently be seen on YouTube in an outstanding print and it is well worth catching with the few caveats I’ve made.


THE BLACK CAMEL. Fox Film Corporation, 1931. Warner Oland (Inspector Charlie Chan), Sally Eilers, Bela Lugosi, Dorothy Revier, Victor Varconi. Based on the novel by Earl Derr Biggers. Director: Hamilton MacFadden.

DAUGHTER OF THE DRAGON. Paramount Pictures, 1931. Anna May Wong, Warner Oland (Fu Manchu), Sessue Hayakawa, Bramwell Fletcher (Ronald Petrie), Frances Dade, Holmes Herbert (Sir John Petrie). Based on the novel Daughter of Fu Manchu by Sax Rohmer. Director: Lloyd Corrigan .

   As it turned out, Cinevent 1990 featured a number of films with Oriental characters and settings. The first of these was The Black Camel, featuring Warner Oland as Charlie Chan in the first film version of the Biggers’ novel. We were warned about the noisy sound track which did not, however, significantly reduce ny enjoyment in this well-made, atmospheric classic.

   Charlie’s co-star was Bela Lugosi skillfully playing a phony psychic who is advising an actress with a shady past, The print was worn, but the acting of a good cast shone through.

   The other Warner Oland starrer was Daughter of the Dragon, directed from a story by Sax Rohmer. An older Fu Manchu (also stouter, as played by the well-nourished Oland) comes to London after being thought dead for ten years to avenge the death of his wife and son.

   He murders Petrie (upgraded from Dr. to peer of the realm) but is himself killed, after pledging his daughter, Ling Moy (the beautiful Anna May Wong) to continue his mission. Unfortunately for the honor of the family, Ling Moy is not, unlike her father, ruthless and she falls in love with Ah Kee (Sessue Hayakawa), a Scotland Yard detective.

   The actors play with utter conviction in a plot riddled with contrivances as patently manufactured as the secret passage that leads from Petrie’s house to the Fu Manchu/Ling Moy residence. The superb cinematography is by Victor Milner who takes advantage of half-tones, London fog and menacing shadows to capture the nighmarish night-world of Oriental intrigue.

   The film is slow-paced but so arresting in the visuals that this is nor a major drawback. The Cinevent film notes claim that Oland “brought an almost spiritual suffering to the role [of Fu Manchu].” As I recall what I saw, there was an overlay of fatigue and sadness in Oland’s performance that might pass for spiritual suffering. I won’t argue the point.


CORNELL WOOLRICH – The Black Path of Fear. Doubleday Crime Club, hardcover, 1944. Reprint editions include: Detective Novel Magazine, April 1945; Avon #106, paperback, 1946; Ace H-66, paperback, circa 1968; Ballantine, paperback, 1982.

THE CHASE. United Artists, 1946. Robert Cummings, Michele Morgan, Steve Cochran and Peter Lorre. Screenplay by Philip Yordan, from the novel The Black Path of Fear, by Cornell Woolrich. Directed by Arthur Ripley.

   Woolrich at his pulpiest turned in to film noir at its weirdest. Such a treat!

   As the book opens, Bill Scott and Eve Roman are just arriving in Havana, fleeing from her husband, gangster Eddie Roman. By the end of the first chapter, she will be dead and he’ll be framed for her murder, which is a lot to pack into one chapter, but Woolrich doesn’t skimp on atmosphere or color as the plot rushes on. He writes about a crowded bar in a way that had me tucking my elbows in, and there’s a very atmospheric chase scene from the fugitive’s POV up a darkened stairway, lit only by the flashlights of his pursuers.

   In a typical Woolrichian coincidence, Bill hooks up with a street-smart Cuban Miss named Midnight with a grudge against cops that impels her to help him track down the real killers. And once again we get that superb atmosphere of darkened doorways, twisted streets, and even into the bowels of an opium den, painted in fevered but fast-paced prose. And for a conclusion there’s a knock-down drag-out fight scene, and a bitter, romantic coda Chandler might have envied.

   Black Path was filmed in 1946, and before I go into it, perhaps a word about the film’s creators might be helpful:

   Producer Seymour Nebenzal was a big name in the early German cinema, with films like M and 3-Penny Opera on his resumé . After he fled Germany to the U.S. his films went into a “cheap-but-interesting” period of things like Hitler’s Madman, but he did produce remakes of his German films Mistress of Atlantis and M.

   I have heard passing references to director Arthur Ripley before; UImer referred to him as “a sick man, mentally & physically” and his output was meager, with a few films that had to be finished by other hands. He was apparently a man of ill health and gloomy outlook, who worked most of his early career in comedy for Mack Sennett, Harry Langdon and W.C. Fields (he directed Fields’ classic short Barber Shop.)

   After many years as a gag man for Capra and others, Ripley directed Voice in the Wind, The Chase, and part of Siren of Atlantis, then nothing till Robert Mitchum asked him to direct Thunder Road. Damn Strange if you ask me.

   Together Nebenzal and Ripley make The Chase something unique, aided by photographer Franz Planer (who sent on to Breakfast at Tiffany’s and The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T) and a choice cast that includes Steve Cochran as an acquisitive gangster and Peter Lorre as his matter-of-fact executioner, who gripes about sending flowers to the funeral of their late competitor (“A hundred and fifty bucks. I don’t care what you say, that’s inflation.”)

   Narrative-wise, The Chase is something else again. It follows the book pretty faithfully for the first half, then Ripley and writer Philip Yordan apparently decided to leave off and make another movie about the same characters. There’s a scene of shocking surprise, followed by a trite “cheat,” and all at once we’re into a movie where Bob Cummings is a disturbed vet with fits of amnesia.

   It’s to the credit of all concerned that this works as well as it does. As I watched, I found myself going from “Aw c’mon!” to “Come on, snap out of it, Bob – and hurry!” as the characters from the first half of the film move toward and away from what looks like predestined fate.

   The Chase can’t be called a complete success, but it has its moments, and I guarantee it’s one of the strangest you’ll ever see.

   I’ve asked Ian Dickerson, the author of the following book to tell us more about it. He’s most graciously agreed:

IAN DICKERSON – Who Is The Falcon?: The Detective In Print, Movies, Radio and TV. Purview Press. softcover, December 2016.

   Back in the dim and distant past, when I was just a lad, I discovered the adventures of the Saint. (I know, I know, I’ve kept that quiet….) In those heady days I was a sucker for any new Saint-like adventure so when the BBC ran out of old black and white Saint films to show and moved onto something called ‘The Falcon.’ my place in front of the television was assured for a few more weeks.

   Those early Falcon films were remarkably Saintly, and although the later ones got a little more creative — The Falcon and the Co-Eds anyone? — they were still firmly in the gentleman detective genre and my teen -aged self was happy.

   Fast forward a few years — well, okay, quite a few years — and I discovered old time radio shows. But I soon had a problem, I had all the episodes of The Saint on tape and being greedy I wanted more. Then I discovered the Falcon had also appeared on radio! Aha, problem solved I thought! But when I listened to the tapes I discovered the Falcon — that radio Falcon — was a hard boiled 1940s PI and bore virtually no resemblance to the gentleman detective of the George Sanders and Tom Conway films. At a time when the Internet was only really just booting up, I had no way of establishing what had happened, but I rather enjoyed those hard-boiled PI adventures so quickly ordered some more.

   Fast forward a few more years and with the help of the now mature Internet, I discovered that not only had the Falcon also appeared in books, magazines and on TV, but that the radio show had run for over a decade and there had been over four hundred and eighty episodes.

   I wanted to learn things; to find out why there were two different characters and how they’d come to be changed, to find out more about the Falcon’s TV adventures and see if I could find copies of them, I also wanted to know more about his stint on radio — who played him? Who wrote the stories? What were they about? And for the geek in me … had I listened to all the ones that were available? (I certainly have now!)

   And I wanted to celebrate a character that had survived sixteen films, a handful of books, thirty-nine episodes of television and that long run on radio.

   So I wrote a book.

   Who is the Falcon? tells the story of all the Falcon’s adventures in print, on radio, in film and television. And there’s even a Falcon short story from the 1940s thrown in for good measure.


EYEWITNESS. 20th Century Fox, 1981. Also released as The Janitor. William Hurt, Sigourney Weaver, Christopher Plummer, James Woods, Steven Hill, Morgan Freeman. Director: Peter Yates.

   In order to appreciate Eyewitness, aka The Janitor, you need to suspend your disbelief. And then do it again. And yet again. Because there are far too many implausible aspects to this Peter Yates-directed thriller to make it anything other than a mere curiosity.

   As in the sense of: how did the filmmakers think that many audiences were going to react to the unlikely romance between a janitor who lives with his vicious attack dog in a small untidy apartment and a wealthy, New York society news anchorwoman? And did they really think that Christopher Plummer was the best actor to portray an Israeli agent – one, I should add, who can’t seem to hold his own against a janitor?

   Then there’s the plot. (Spoilers Ahead!) Daryll Deever (William Hurt) and his best friend Aldo (James Woods) are Vietnam veterans working as janitors in New York City. Their boss is a Vietnamese guy who was on the opposite side during the war. When he gets murdered, Darryl pretends he knows more about the crime than he really does so he can get close to TV journalist Tony Sokolow (Sigourney Weaver), who is investigating the story.

   What charms her most is when he tells her he’s been her greatest fan for years and is consumed with her and how much he loves her. She’s so taken by this obsessive janitor that she’s ready to leave her urbane Israeli fiancé Joseph (Plummer) who, to everyone’s surprise – or not, is an Israeli secret agent. Lo and behold, it turns out that Joseph is the one who murdered Darryl’s boss. You see, until then everyone thought it had to be Aldo because he hates Asian people so much. That’s why he lives in Chinatown, of course.

   Roger Ebert liked this movie a lot more than I did, arguing that all of the things that I found absurd to be indicative of the film’s playing with audience expectations. There’s nothing wrong with playing with expectations, of course. But I don’t think that’s what’s going on here. I think it’s more of a case of a horribly miscast film and a romance at the heart of it that really doesn’t pass the laugh test.

   Indeed, the best line in the whole film is when Aldo screams at Darryl saying that this whole romance is absurd because Darryl is just a janitor. If that was in the script, then I’ll give the screenwriter and director credit for some self-awareness. But part of me thinks it was Woods, at his unhinged best, ad-libbing. Final note: look for Steven Hill and Morgan Freeman portraying a pair of world-weary cops working the case. As much as I didn’t care for Eyewitness, I’d watch a movie with these two any day.

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