Mystery movies


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.


LES INTRIGANTES. L’Alliance Générale de Distribution Cinématographique / Memnon Films, France, 1954. Also released as The Plotters and The Scheming Women. Raymond Rouleau, Jeanne Moreau, Raymond Pellegrin, Etchika Choureau, and Paul Demange. Written and directed by Henri Decoin, from a novel by Jacques Robert.

   A fitting title for an intriguing not-quite-murder mystery that manages to quote from Alfred Hitchcock without slavishly imitating him. Set in a Theatre (like Stage Fright, and with a plucky young girl determined to prove her lover innocent) the story benefits from a marvelous sense of place, and a cast of vividly evoked actors, dancers, writers, wives etc., adding character and color to the proceedings.

   The hook here is that we never see the actual killing, and in a visual medium like film, this is important. Thus we never know if the hero (Raymond Rouleau) is guilty or not, but he seems like a nice guy, even when the evidence starts mounting against him.

   The killing itself involves the co-owner of the theatre where Rouleau is the other co-owner, falling from a catwalk. The only other person there at the time was Rouleau, who was on the catwalk with him. A bit suspicious that, but the Police haven’t got a case until Rouleau’s secretary (a fine beady-eyed portrayal by Raymond Pellegrin) says he was there and saw the co-owner get pushed. Also about this time, documents surface showing that the dead man was thinking of pulling out financial support, but with his death, Rouleau inherits everything.

   So the story becomes not an attempt to prove Rouleau innocent, but to prove him not guilty. Which pits the plucky young girl who loves Rouleau against a lot of sophisticated and complex characters who would profit if he’s convicted — including Jeanne Moreau, looking very Dietrich-esque as his unfaithful wife.

   There’s some strong writing and acting here, and there’s a cute in-joke: a little guy who keeps popping up wanting to talk to Rouleau and always just missing him. About the 3rd or 4th time he showed up, I figured he had some important clue to the whole thing, but everybody just maddeningly ignores him till the end — when there’s a surprise that gave me a hearty chuckle.

   This isn’t easy to find, but those who can get a copy will discover an enjoyable and original little film to remember.


THE CAT AND THE CANARY. Paramount Pictures, 1939. Bob Hope, Paulette Goddard, John Beal, Douglass Montgomery, Gale Sondergaard, Elizabeth Patterson. Director: Elliott Nugent.

   The thing about a lot of locked room mysteries, particularly the kind that take place in spooky old houses out in the middle of nowhere, is that the resolution is often rushed and not nearly as thrilling as everything that came before it. That’s definitely the case in The Cat and the Canary, this 1939 horror comedy starring Bob Hope and Paulette Goddard. The real thrill in this fun-filled Paramount release begins with Hope’s arrival on screen and never really lets up until the very end, when there needs to be some form of resolution to effectively put an end to the proceedings.

   But what proceedings! Adapted from the theatrical play of the same name, The Cat and the Canary features Bob Hope at his wisecracking, self-deprecating prime. He portrays Wally Campbell, an actor and radio host who is summoned to the Louisiana bayou house of a deceased relative by the name of Cyrus Norman.

   Wally, along with a host of other surviving relatives, are to stay in the old mansion for the night and listen to an attorney, Mr. Crosby (George Zucco) read the old man’s will. As it turns out, Norman has left the house to the dashing Joyce Norman (Paulette Goddard). But there’s a catch: if Joyce is to die or go mad, she will lose her inheritance.

   Enter the Cat, an escaped mental patient who seems to be lurking about in the area. It also doesn’t take Wally long to realize that the condition of the will is a perverse incentive for someone – another heir perhaps – to murder Joyce. Or at least drive her mad.

   And that’s exactly what starts to happen when Joyce begins to see Mr. Crosby disappear from her room. It’s up to Wally to save Joyce. The question is: from whom or from what? And who is the Cat? Finding out is a large part of the fun in this admittedly goofy but entertaining film that, despite being over seventy years old and filled with what would become horror film clichés, still feels exceedingly fresh.

  THE MALTESE FALCON. Warner Bros Vitaphone Talking Picture, 1931. Bebe Daniels (Ruth Wonderly), Ricardo Cortez (Sam Spade), Dudley Digges (Casper Gutman), Una Merkel (Effie Perine), Robert Elliott (Detective Lt. Dundy), Thelma Todd (Iva Archer), Otto Matieson (Dr. Joel Cairo), Walter Long (Miles Archer), Dwight Frye (Wilmer Cook). Based on the novel by Dashiell Hammett. Director: Roy Del Ruth.

   It’s taken me a long time to get around to seeing this one, but I’m glad I did. I’m going to assume everyone reading this knows the story, either by reading the book or watching the 1941 version, the one directed by John Huston and with Humphrey Bogart in his never to be forgotten role of private eye Sam Spade. Or both, of course.

   This first adaptation, as I’ve just discovered, follows the story line of the book just about as closely as the Bogart one. In my opinion, though, while very good, if not excellent, it isn’t nearly as good as the later one, in spite of the semi-risque bits it gets away with, having been made before the Movie Code went into effect. (I suspect that I’m not saying anything new here.)

   To some great extent, I imagine, how well you like this version depends quite a bit on how well you like Ricardo Cortez in the role. I didn’t, but on the other hand, who could compare with Humphrey Bogart’s performance, in a part made just for him?

   I don’t know what the critical or audience reception to this movie was at the time, but it didn’t seem to have any lasting effect on how detective stories in novel form were adapted to the screen. It took another ten years before film versions of other mysteries didn’t have to have goofy cops or funny detective sidekicks tagging along for comedy relief. There’s none of that in this 1931 movie, but except for a few exceptions, such Warner Brothers’ output of gritty crime and racketeer dramas, that’s a simple idea that didn’t catch on.


JAMES RONALD. This Way Out. Lippincott, US, hardcover, 1939. Popular Library #389, US, paperback, 1951. First published in the UK by Rich & Cowan, hardcover, July 1938. Film: Universal, 1944, as The Suspect.

THE SUSPECT. Universal, 1944. Charles Laughton, Ella Raines, Henry Daniell, Rosalind Ivan, Stanley Ridges. Screenplay by Bertram Millhauser, based on the novel This Way Out, by James Ronald. Directed by Robert Siodmak.

   Yet another tale of murder for love and freedom, memorably done as book and movie.

   The novel opens with Philip Marshall, middle-aged and unhappily mired in a marriage that has degenerated into constant nagging. Leaving work one evening, he meets a troubled young woman, shows her a bit of kindness, and they begin a relationship that slowly turns into love.

   When Philip asks his wife for a divorce, she sees it as just another chance to hurt him, but before she can turn the screws… well I’m not giving anything away to say that she ends up quite dead, opening Philip’s way for marriage and happiness, marred only by a persistent Scotland Yard detective who finds the death just a bit too convenient, and a nasty acquaintance who sees a chance for blackmail.

   This is ground well-trod by other writers, but author James Ronald is writing about something else. This Way Out is spiced with some poignant and pleasing observations about love, loneliness and responsibility. In fact, responsibility becomes a recurring motif in the tale, as Marshall weighs his obligations to his wife, his lover, his son, and ultimately to humanity as a whole, and the result is a book of surprising emotional resonance.

   Universal did well by this, assigning the screenplay to Bertram Millhauser of the Sherlock Holmes series, probably to give it that authentic Hollywood London feel, and putting at the helm Robert Siodmak, who two years later would define film noir with The Killers.

   Nor did they scrimp with the actors, starting with Charles Laughton playing the meek and decent Marshall with his customary self-effacing brilliance. Ella Raines projects a spirited innocence, and Rosalind Ivans offers yet another of her bitchy wife portrayals, this time with a nastier edge than usual, even for her.

   Stanley Ridges never really convinced me as the man from Scotland Yard; he doesn’t quite capture the polite cunning of John Williams in Dial M for Murder, and he makes no attempt at an English accent. But Henry Daniell casts off his usual puritanical demeanor and plays the blackmailing drunkard with surprising relish.

   Daniell was usually cast as the bad guy in films like Jane Eyre, Camille and The Great Dictator, and he specialized in the puritanical type; even in neutral parts, he was generally a party-pooper, like the judge in Les Girls, and the doctor who gives the bad news to Jake Barnes in The Sun Also Rises.

   Here though, he’s the self-indulgent rotter who sees a steady meal ticket in his neighbor Charles Laughton, and he plays the part with obvious glee, as if glad for a chance to kick up his heels for a change.

   One important difference between film and book intrigues me: In the book we see Philip kill his wife. In the film, however, we simply learn that she’s dead—allegedly after striking her head in a fall down the stairs — and the heavy cane Philip usually carries around is missing. Scotland Yard suspects foul play and so do we, but in a visual medium like the movies, the omission is telling.

   I will only add that both book and movie leave us with a very satisfying twist ending, and I recommend them highly.


BLUE, WHITE AND PERFECT. 20th Century Fox, 1941. Lloyd Nolan (PI Michael Shayne), Mary Beth Hughes, Helene Reynolds, George Reeves, Steven Geray. Based on the character created by Brett Halliday and a story by Borden Chase (see comments for more information). Director: Herbert I. Leeds. Shown at Cinevent 26, Columbus OH, May 1994.

   In addition to Chandu (reviewed here ), I was also looking forward to a film I remembered with great pleasure from ts original release, Blue, White and Perfect.

   Lloyd Nolan is a wise-cracking Michael Shayne hired to follow the trail of industrial diamonds hijacked from an aircraft factory. This crime comedy of international war-time intrigue finds him on a liner bound for Honolulu where he teams up with George Reeves (as “Juan Arturo O’Hara”), an FBI Investigator traveling incognito to continue the investigation. Shayne is a fast talker and situation improvisor, and Nolan is fine in this role, although the film was not as fleet of foot as I remembered it.

   After the convention as I was watching The Shadow in another film as he was on the point of drowning in a chamber filling with water, I recalled the scene in Blue where Nolan and Reeves are trapped in a baggage compartment by a bad guy. A similar ploy taken from the matinee chapter-play thriller, the room in which the walls are closing in was effective in Star Wars and demonstrates the continuing reliance of movies on their history.

   With delectable Mary Beth Hughes as Shayne’s long-suffering girl friend.

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