Mystery movies


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.

REVIEWED BY WALTER ALBERT:         


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.

MURDERER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS
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.

HOME, SWEET HOMICIDE. 20th Century Fox, 1946. Peggy Ann Garner, Randolph Scott, Lynn Bari, Dean Stockwell, Connie Marshall, James Gleason, Anabel Shaw, Barbara Whiting, John Shepperd, Stanley Logan. Based on the novel by Craig Rice. Director: Lloyd Bacon.

   First of all, anyone wishing to know more about the book, the movie, and author Craig Rice in general, ought to read Jeffrey Marks’ long online article on all of the above. This very informative essay makes for fascinating reading, either before or after watching the film. It probably makes more sense to read it afterward, but since there has never been an official release of the movie that I know of, you might not want to wait until you find a non-official copy, luckily a task not too difficult to do.

   Marks says that the story is more than slightly autobiographical in nature, and that’s easy to believe. Lynn Bari plays Marian Carstairs, a widow with three precocious children. She makes a living and a home for them all by spending most of her time in her upstairs study working on and typing out another Bill Smith mystery novel. In her absence, the three children, two older girls and a young tow-haired lad named Archie (played by ten-year-old Dean Stockwell), have taken over the household chores, and all in all are doing very well at it,

   The three of them are also concerned about the romantic interest they think their mother needs, but even more importantly when they hear shots inside a neighbor’s house, they think their mother ought to get credit for solving the murder, and from that moment on, they do their best to keep the police from cracking the case ahead of her.

   Which is where Randolph Scott comes in. By some strange coincidence his name is Bill Smith, also, a chance event which gets the Carstairs children thinking. He’s the “enemy” on one hand, albeit a friendly one, and yet he might be exactly what they are looking for in terms of their mother’s insufficient love life.

   No matter. Solving the case comes first, which they do, in roundabout fashion, with a narrow escape or two, something they hadn’t taken into consideration — that killers really don’t want to get caught.

   Even though Randolph Scott usually played the quintessential cowboy, his long and lanky frame fits the suit, tie and hat of a homicide detective very well. He doesn’t have a lot of chemistry with Lynn Bari’s character, but he’s wonderful with the children, both with his patience and exasperation with them, sometimes at the same time. But it’s the chemistry between the children themselves (the two older ones played by Peggy Ann Garner and Connie Marshall) that’s the reason that this movie has just become one of my favorites. (It’s long list, but this one is now there.)

   As child actors go, they’re all naturals, funny, sophisticated (or so the oldest thinks), picked on (so Archie thinks) and charming. As mysteries go, I knew who the killer was almost right away, and you probably will too. But don’t let that make you put off finding a copy of this most delightful film for yourself. If you’ve read this far into the review, you’ll regret it if you do.

Reviewed by DAVID VINEYARD:          


TAKE MY LIFE. General Film, UK, 1947; Eagle-Lion Films, US, 1949. Hugh Williams, Greta Gynt, Marius Goring, Francis L. Sullivan, Henry Edwards. Screenplay by Winston Graham and Valerie Taylor, additional dialogue by Winston Graham and Margaret Kennedy based on the play and novel by Winston Graham. Cinematography: Guy Green. Director: Ronald Neame.

         Warning, Spoilers Ahead:

   There is a credit that belongs on this list that isn’t in the on screen or IMDb credits, that name is a former film editor turned director who began his career working with Neame, and according to some sources returned the favor with the outstanding editing that contributes so much to this suspenseful outing, David Lean.

   Whether that is true or not, this film is not only beautifully written by Winston Graham (Marnie, The Walking Stick, The Poldark Saga …) and directed by Ronald Neame, it also has a first class score and outstanding cinematography by Guy Green along with the imaginative editing and structure that adds so much to this film.

   The film’s opening is narrated by Francis Sullivan, the sarcastic and brilliant QC prosecuting Nicholas Talbot (Hugh Williams) for murder. We hear Sullivan’s account of the case while we watch what actually unfolded, even when it veers from Sullivan’s biased account.

   Nicholas Talbot is the n’eer do well husband of opera star Phillipa Shelly (the beautiful Greta Gynt) nee Talbot, and now as her manager, he has his first success in life. Her latest opera is opening in London, and Talbot is busy setting up her future appearances. The night of her debut she is nervous, and a famously temperamental diva on opening nights.

   So it is exceptionally bad night for the substitute violinist in the orchestra to turn out to be Elizabeth (Rosalee Crutchley in a nice totally unsympathetic turn), a lover of Nicholas from the past who begs him to come to see her, accidentally pockets his engraved silver pencil, and carries a picture of him in a locket.

   Phillipa, nerves on end after the success of the debut, puts on a jealous show, keeps digging at Nicholas, and finally throws some thing at him cutting his head when he reacts. He storms out leaving her alone. And during the period he wanders in the rain, a man approximately his height in the same overcoat and trilby that he is wearing shows up at the flat, where Elizabeth, his former lover, lives. He kills her in a fit of rage, sustaining a wound to the head, and then burning the body so no image of her face exists.

   There is a witness, of course, who never saw the killer’s face, but he saw him holding a handkerchief to his wounded forehead. When Scotland Yard puts out a call to hospitals for a man fitting that description, Nicholas is in an emergency clinic getting his wound sewed up because it wouldn’t stop bleeding.

   He is arrested, lies about how he got the wound out of embarrassment. and then when he tells the truth and police go to Phillipa, and thinking she is protecting him, she lies, tightening the noose around his neck. Then the only witness identifies him in a line up as the man he saw on the stairs.

   It may not be true, but the more questions the police ask the more Nicholas looks like a failure who hitched his wagon to Phillipa’s star and thus would have ample motive to murder a threat to that profitable future. He has motive, opportunity, he lied to the police, we really don’t know whether to trust it wasn’t him we saw kill Elizabeth.

    *** If you don’t want to know the rest of the plot, stop here.

   Up to this point the viewer has no idea whether he killed Elizabeth or not. We haven’t seen the killer. We can’t trust the narrator. Have we been seeing what really happened that night even when it veers from Sullivan’s account, or is Nicholas being railroaded on circumstantial evidence?

   It is only as Sullivan describes the crime in court that we see the murderer is Marius Goring, a man in an overcoat and a trilby who receives a wound to his forehead. We follow him home to Scotland where we see a photo of Elizabeth on his piano, but we have no idea who he is or what their relationship is, or how he could ever be tied to her and traced.

   It doesn’t look good for Nicholas, and Phillipa, feeling guilty, begins to investigate on her own with aid from sympathetic Inspector Archer (Henry Edwards) from the Yard. With no photograph of Elizabeth, she can’t even advertise for someone who knew her and might provide another suspect beyond Nicholas. She hits one dead end after another, even traveling to Holland to speak to Elizabeth’s mother hoping to find a picture, but the hateful old lady destroyed them all.

   In the dead woman’s things Phillipa finds a sheet of music, but it leads nowhere until visiting her family she hears her nephew humming it. Seems his friend heard the music at a school in Scotland and he picked up from him humming it, and with that her only clue, Phillipa boards the train for the remote boarding school in a small Scottish village.

   A boarding school whose master is Mr. Sidney Fleming, Marius Goring.

   There is a top notch scene worthy of Hitchcock when Phillipa plays the music on the organ in the school’s chapel goading Fleming, and suddenly can no longer see him behind her in the mirror above her. It’s a slick take on the famous scene from the silent Phantom of the Opera with Lon Chaney, and it is almost as nerve wracking, a murder in the making prevented only by the arrival of the school caretaker, the sinister Goring advancing behind her shot at a slightly skewered angle.

   She eludes Fleming and finds a picture of Elizabeth that proves she was Mrs. Fleming at a shop owned by a cranky Scot’s photographer. She rushes to catch her train back to London before Nicholas appears in court and is convicted of murder and sentenced to hang, but Fleming is on the train with her, and the man in the compartment with her is deaf and can’t hear a thing as Fleming confesses his crime and plans to silence her.

   Phillipa is saved, and Fleming falls from the train to his death, the death he planned for her, but the photograph has been destroyed, and she has no proof when she goes to tell her story at the Yard.

   There is a nice twist then that comes a bit out of left field, but it’s not bad, and by then the suspense is ratcheted up enough that all you want is to be let off the hook. How you get off is of much less import. Some may be more bothered by it than I am, but if you pay attention you can see it is not entirely improbable and Neame only cheated a little.

   You may as well give up on the suspense genre if you are going to be too much of a stickler for logic. So long as they don’t just pull them out of a hat, I’m willing to be flexible.

   This is a fine suspense film that is gorgeous to look at, imaginatively cut, and shot and directed by the always interesting Neame. Whether Lean actually cut the film or aided in it or not I can’t say for sure, but someone did an outstanding job that is as important as the plot or characters to the final product.

   I have one or two mild bits of carping to add. I found Williams a bit old and not as charming as I would have liked as Nicholas, it is hard to watch it and not think how perfect James Mason, Stewart Granger, or Ray Milland would have been in the role, and they might have held back the revelation regarding Goring a bit later in the film since the untrustworthy narrator was working so well, or set up that twist a bit better, but those are minor at best

   I read the novel back when Bantam was reprinting many of Graham’s suspense novels following the bestselling Marnie and The Walking Stick. It was an instant favorite, and I spent years looking for this film, finding a mention in a book here or a still there, but until now never the full film.

   If you never read one of Graham’s finely wrought suspense novels I suggest you go out and find one. This, the two above, Greek Fire, or The Green Flash are all good choices by a master whose work is much like that of Robert Goddard, a master of civilized but nerve stretching suspense who doesn’t always go for the easy or happy endings.

   Catch this one though. It is a classic suspense film you may well never have heard of, and you should get to know it. If you thought you had seen all the great suspense films, this one adds one more to the list. It really is exceptionally good and more than worth any lover of the genre’s time.

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