Mystery movies

FOLLOW ME QUIETLY. RKO Radio Pictures, 1949. William Lundigan, Dorothy Patrick, Jeff Corey, Nestor Paiva. Screenplay: Lillie Hayward, based on a story co-written by Anthony Mann. Director: Richard O. Fleischer.

   Even though noir maven Eddie Muller recently showed this as part of his “Noir Alley” series on TCM, in his comments afterward he had to fess up and admit that Follow Me Quietly is not a noir film at all. Never the less, it’s a film that comes closer to noir than a lot of films that also aren’t but are dumped into the category anyway.

   This is has little to do with the story line — if anything, this is nothing but a straight-forward police procedural — but it does have a lot to do with the filming, the stylish camera work and lighting, starting with the opening scene, as we watch girl reporter Ann Gorman (Dorothy Patrick)’s feet as she paces back and forth in the rain in front of a small diner while waiting for Lt. Harry Grant (William Lundingan) for some details of the case he’s currently working on.

   The sending is quite striking, too, as we see Grant chasing down the serial killer he’s finally closing in on. The conclusion takes place in some sort of waterworks plant (?), which allows for scene after scene filled with spectacular background shots of pipes and conduits of some sort, railings and walkways, taken from all kinds of angles.

   What comes in between? A fairly ordinary cop film, with an added plus of a romance between the two primary stars that’s only semi-convincing. One unusual visual aspect that I’ve never seen before is instead of the usual police artist’s rendition of the killer’s face (which no one still living has seen) is the creation of a three-dimensional rendition of his body in the form of a faceless dummy.

   This leads to one chilling moment in the middle of the film, which I won’t tell you anything more about — it will more effective if you see it for yourself without warning — but one that’s negated (and truthfully, so is the entire film, if you think about it) when the strangler of at least seven people turns out to be a quiet nebbish sort of guy.

   Lundigan was a competent actor but he was also probably too good-looking to be the primary protagonist in a noir film. Dorothy Patrick, on the other hand, an actress whom I don’t recall ever seeing before, does just fine as a pest of a reporter who’s always in his hair.



THE FALLEN SPARROW. RKO Radio Pictures, 1943. John Garfield, Maureen O’Hara, Walter Slezak, Patricia Morison, Martha O’Driscoll, Bruce Edwards, John Banner, John Miljan, Hugh Beaumont. Based on the novel by Dorothy B. Hughes. Director: Richard Wallace.

   Although released in 1943 and nominally a spy film with patriotic undertones, RKO’s The Fallen Sparrow is far more of a film noir than many of the post-war crime melodramas that contemporary critics have attempted to pigeonhole into that movie genre. From a protagonist teetering on the edge of sanity to the noticeable absence of a traditional upbeat Hollywood ending, the film works best as a study of a man trying to survive in a world that is seemingly one step ahead of him.

   Based on the eponymous novel by Dorothy B. Hughes, the film likewise benefits from its casting of John Garfield as the lead protagonist. He portrays Kit McKittrick, the son of a New York cop who has spent the last two years imprisoned by fascists in Spain. A veteran of the Spanish Civil War, Kit is dealing with the traumatic psychological fallout resulting from his being tortured repeatedly by a Nazi official during his term in captivity. He doesn’t remember his torturer’s face. In fact, it’s not clear that he’s ever seen it. What he does remember is the sound of his persecutor’s limp. A shuffling sound followed by a distinct plodding thud.

   The plot follows Kit as he returns to New York to investigate the apparent suicide of his friend, a New York detective. He suspects not only that his friend was murdered, but also that his death had something to do with Kit’s imprisonment in Spain. And when Kit begins to hear the footsteps of his torturer he begins to wonder whether he’s lost his mind or whether his persecutor has followed him back home.

   Although an enjoyable suspense film, The Fallen Sparrow is not a movie that necessitates repeated viewings. The film can be slow going at times and is rather talky. It’s almost as if the screenwriters literally tried to adapt Hughes’s novel in total rather than capture the essence of her story and then use it to create something excitedly fresh in cinematic form.

MANHANDLED. Paramount Pictures, 1949. Dorothy Lamour, Sterling Hayden, Dan Duryea, Irene Hervey. Director: Lewis R. Foster.

   I started writing this review by running through the basic plot, but after writing three or four lines, I gave up, realizing how dumb it all was. Let’s boil it down to this: crooked private eye frames psychiatrist’s secretary for murder.

   Dan Duryea plays the aforementioned PI in a manner that’ll curl your teeth — and I mean that in a good way. No one was better than he in roles like this. This is one he was meant to play.

   In an early role for him, Sterling Hayden plays a sympathetic insurance guy who’s nowhere to be seen when Miss Lamour needs him most, and the guys on the police force should be in the movies — as comedians. There will be times when I swear you will say that any resemblance to real life is totally coincidental.

   I enjoyed the movie anyway. It isn’t much of a detective or mystery story, but there are enough suspects involved for there to be a surprise or two, and if you can put up with the comedy bits, there are enough of the grimmer elements of the noir school of movie-making to make this a film worth watching out for.

— Reprinted and somewhat revised from Movie.File.8, January 1990.

PAID TO KILL. Lippert Pictures, US, 1954. First released in the UK as Five Days (Hammer Films, 1954). Dane Clark, Cecile Chevreau, Paul Carpenter, Thea Gregory, Anthony Forwood. Screenwriter: Paul Tabori. Director: Montgomery Tully.

   This a film that’s been recently released in a box set of DVDs as a collection of “Hammer Noir” films, and while it’s slower moving than I’d like, the basic plotline is very much noirish in nature, and some of the scenes do show some stylish black-and-white touches. (More on this later.)

   It’s hard to say what a British company called Amalgamated Industries actually does, but Dane Clark, even though obviously American, is the head of it. He’s been doing well on the job until he takes one gamble too many, and when the deal fails to go through, the company is ready to go down the toilet with it.

   With no other recourse at hand, he blackmails a business associate into killing him so that his wife will receive his insurance money. (Insurance companies do not pay off in cases of suicide.)

   Well, at this point we all know where this s going, don’t we? The bad deal goes through, and life is livable again. But the would-be killer can’t be found in order to call the whole thing off. Not even Dane Clark’s highly efficient private secretary (who is obviously but quietly in love with him) can find a trace of him.

      There are some twists that follow in this otherwise very familiar story line, which are all to the good, but it’s the final scene that’s the icing on the cake — and makes this film as noir as noir could be. I wish I could tell you about it, I really do, but I think it best that I don’t.

   The story is better than good, to sum things up, and the acting, while a little flat at times, is as good as it needs to be. I like Dane Clark as an actor, but on the screen I’d have to admit that he’s often brooding and moodier than he really needs to be, with a hint of some hidden demons deep inside, or am I the only one who sees that?

MURDER IN THE FLEET. MGM, 1935. Robert Taylor, Jean Parker, Ted Healy, Una Merkel, Nat Pendleton, Jean Hersholt, Arthur Byron. Director: Edward Sedgwick.

   A new electronic fire-fighting device is being installed on a navy cruiser, and someone is intent on stopping it, to the extent of committing murder. Robert Taylor is in charge of the installation, but as stalwart and handsome as he is, the movie’s still a disaster.

   Less than a quarter of the film is devoted to the mystery. The rest consists of busted romance (Jean Parker, primarily) and slapstick comedy (Ted Healy, minus his Three Stooges, and Nat Pendleton). What’s worse, to tell you the truth, I think I liked the comedy better.

— Reprinted and very slightly revised from Movie.File.8, January 1990.


GUMSHOE. Columbia, 1971. Albert Finney, Billie Whitelaw, Frank Finlay, Janice Rule, Fulton Mackay, and Bill Dean. Written by Neville Smith. Directed by Stephen Frears.

   A quirky little mystery/comedy/drama that deserves to be better remembered.

   In the early 1970s, Cinephiles and Cineasts knew all about film noir, and looked back on it with affection. But to ordinary Cinners in the movie-going public, it all seemed a bit passé, and so this clever pastiche went largely unseen and unsung. Too bad, because it’s a dandy little film.

   The story, as far as I can make out, centers on Eddie Ginley (Finney) a failure at 31 who ekes out a living as a Bingo Caller and dreams of becoming a stand-up comedian. His long-time girlfriend (Whitelaw) left him to marry his brother, and he’s seeing a Psychiatrist:

   “Eddie, you know what? You’re a bloody nut!

“I owe it all to you, Doc.”

   For a birthday present to himself, he puts an ad in the paper:

No Divorce Work

   To his surprise, a mysterious phone call summons him to meet with a shady fat man, who gives him an envelope with a picture of a girl, a thousand pounds, and a gun. So the chase is on: to find the girl, learn who wants to kill her, and why—a chase complicated by his ex-girlfriend-now-sister-in-law; a femme fatale (Rule) who wants him off the case; and the real hit man who was supposed to pick up the package Eddie got by mistake.

   If it all sounds complicated, well that ain’t the half of it, and it’s further obfuscated by sudden shifts in tone from action to drama to comedy. This was the first feature film of Stephen Frears (and of composer Andrew Lloyd Webber, come to think of it) and he opts for speed, with lines bouncing around like something from a Howard Hawks movie:

Anne: I’m Anne Scott.

Eddie: I’m all shook up.

Anne: What’s your name?

Eddie: Modelling. Clay Modelling.

Anne: I don’t think I fancy you, Modelling.

Eddie: Work on it.

Anne: I like tall men.

Eddie: The Seven Dwarves got Snow White.

Anne: Only because they crowded her.

   The Big Sleep comes to mind, doesn’t it? And like that classic, Gumshoe leaves no time to wonder if it makes sense –which it doesn’t. What it does is provide 86 minutes of laughs, surprises, suspense and drama. And what more could you ask, anyway?

A CLIMATE FOR KILLING. Black Crow Productions / Propaganda Films, 1991. John Beck, Katharine Ross, Steven Bauer, Mia Sara, Phil Brock. Written and directed by J. S. Cardone.

   I led a sheltered life through the 1990s. Before watching this movie, at the heart of which is a better-than-average murder mystery, I’d heard of only one of the members of the cast. Check the listing above, and you can probably tell which one that was. But between them all, they probably appeared in well over a hundred movies, many of them like this one, most of them without a lot of pretensions and with budgets, shall we say, on the skimpy side.

   The story. Found in the desert in Yuma County, Arizona, is the body of decapitated woman. Her hands have been removed as well, making it difficult if not impossible to identify her. Luckily Grace Hines, the local coroner (played by Katharine Ross), recognizes the birthmark on her thigh. Unluckily she can tell no one but Paul McCraw of the sheriff’s office (John Beck) since she saw the mark while performing an illegal abortion on the woman many years before.

   Which gets us to the core of the matter. Now the problem is the fact that the woman was presumed dead 15 years before. She was presumed murdered by her much older husband, who committed suicide later the same week in a fit of remorse. Written out like this, I think you may be able to put two and two together and get close to four faster than the investigators on the case manage to do, but it’s still an interesting challenge.

   Filling out the running time, though, is a subplot that arises when a young investigator (Steven Bauer) arrives at sheriff’s office tasked by a government office in Phoenix to “modernize” their operations there. Problem is that he’s a “by the books” kind of guy, and McCraw likes to work on “instinct.” Matters get even more complicated when the new guy starts taking out McCraw’s daughter.

   This part of the story is filler at best, but it does add another dimension to it. I watched the movie last week, but I recorded it from Cinemax on a VHS tape some 25 years ago. It has the ambience and basic ingredients of a made-for-TV movie, but it turns out it was not, as evidenced by a topless dancer in a local bar in one scene, and one rather graphic sex scene toward the end of the movie. Both gratuitous? Yes, of course they are.

UNDERCOVER GIRL. Butcher’s Films, UK, 1957. United Artists, US, 1958. Paul Carpenter, Kay Callard, Monica Grey, Bruce Seton, Jackie Collins, Maya Koumani. Director: Francis Searle.

   If you start watching this movie waiting for a girl to go under cover in any way, shape or form, you’re going to wait for a long, long time. There isn’t one. Don’t hold your breath. It never happens. Not even close.

   Now that I have that out of the way, let me ask (and answer) another question I had: Is this a forgotten film noir, as I was informed when I bought my strictly collector-to-collector at some long ago forgotten pulp or movie convention? In a word, no. It’s a black and white crime film, made in UK, and that’s all it is. And while it can hold your interest all the way through, if it had stayed forgotten, except by collectors who collect every movie even closely related to noir, no one would ever have reason to regret the fact.

   There is a skill, a technique, an art, if you will, in making a black and white film that is mostly lost today, and many of the crime films of this era, both US and UK, can display flashes of noir lighting, set design and so on without being noir films at all. Such is the case here.

   When the brother-in-law of Johnny Carter (Paul Carpenter), a journalist for a weekly news magazine, is murdered, it is assumed that it was because he was digging too deeply into the case he was working on. Carpenter is warned off the investigation by his editor, but does he heed the warning? Of course not, and his snooping around on his own turns up a gang of sophisticated blackmailers. By sheer coincidence one of their victims is the sister (Jackie Collins) of Carpenter’s very close lady friend (Kay Callard).

   The story is well told, but it’s a simple one and very slow moving. To fill out the full running time, just over an hour, a totally extraneous photo shoot with the reigning Miss Brazil is, well, interesting and fun to look at, but as I say, in no way is it essential to the tale.


THE TWO FACES OF JANUARY. Magnolia Pictures, 2014. Viggo Mortensen, Kirstin Dunst, Oscar Isaac. Screenplay by Hossein Amini, based on the novel by Patrica Highsmith. Directed by Hossein Amini.

   Filmed on location in Greece and Turkey this handsome and intelligent suspense thriller based on a novel by Fort Worth-born suspense novelist Patrica Highsmith (Strangers on a Train, The Talented Mr. Ripley) is in a different key from most of today’s films. There are no car chases, monsters, or superheroes involved, nothing leaping out of the screen at you, and no gore, just human beings caught in their own webs of lies, deceit, and passions.

   Rydal (Oscar Isaac) is an American tour guide in Greece who finds himself attracted to sophisticated and wealthy American tourist Chester MacFarland (Viggo Mortensen) and his wife Colette (Kirstin Dunst) who befriend him after a day of visiting the sights in Crete. It seems like a brief flirtation for Rydal, but soon escalates into something more when he spies Chester trying to hide a body.

   MacFarland is an embezzler and his clients have hired a private detective to find him and bring him back to the States. When he kills the man, he is forced to enlist the naive Rydal to help hide the body and get them off the island and to Turkey with new papers, and Rydal, who has eyes for Dunst and is fascinated by Chester, agrees all too eagerly.

   Despite the handsome full color locations the film is more akin a film noir than a glitzy modern tale. The triangle between Rydal, Colette, and Chester is complex, with Rydal almost as seduced by the charismatic Chester as by the beautiful younger Colette.

   And of course things begin to unravel almost immediately. Tensions rise between the two men and between husband and wife, she is attracted to the younger man as her husband becomes more jealous, and soon the three are at each others throats.

   When a tragic accident occurs, Rydal finds himself even more implicated, and must betray Chester in order to keep his own neck out of a noose.

   As with most of Highsmith’s books and characters there are no easy answers or clear cut heroes or villains. There are degrees of guilt and innocence and shades of dark and light to all the characters. Colette was all too happy to go along with Chester so long as it was comfortable and there was money, Rydal all too eager to seduce another man’s wife and abet a murder, and Chester a victim of his own greed and desire for his younger wife. No one is innocent and no one fully guilty, all trapped by their own weakness and desire.

   The Two Faces of January is one of Highsmith best known novels and gets a handsome screen production here. That it might have been more taut in black and white in the era it was written for is more about our expectations for contemporary films than any real criticism of the film itself. As an intelligent dark exercise in modern noir that satisfies on all levels it is hard to find a flaw in it, and I haven’t seen any better examples of the form in recent years.

   The mid-section sags a bit, only because the director lingers a bit too long on the novelistic approach to developing the characters, but that is a small complaint about an intelligent suspense film of a type they really don’t make them like anymore.

THE UNHOLY NIGHT. MGM, 1929. Ernest Torrence, Roland Young, Dorothy Sebastian, Natalie Moorhead (and Boris Karloff, uncredited). Director: Lionel Barrymore.

   This movie, only 60 years old [and now nearly 90], has almost everything. (If it were rated today, it would get a “G”, and so it can’t have everything.) What it does have is: a fog covering all of London, a series of murders — the victims all members of a British regiment from 1915 …

   … as well as a wealthy mansion, suspicious butlers, a legendary “green ghost,” a seance, a major with a scarred face, and a million pound legacy of hatred (left to the surviving members of the regiment by a former officer who was booted out). Stir and boil.

— Reprinted and very slightly revised from Movie.File.8, January 1990.

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