Mystery movies


ENTER ARSENE LUPIN. Universal Pictures, 1944. Charles Korvin, Ella Raines, J. Carroll Naish, George Dolenz, Gale Sonddergard, Miles Mander. Screenplay by Bertram Millhauser, based on the character created by Maurice Leblanc. Directed by Ford Beebe.

   Charles Korvin’s first outing as Arsene Lupin, and the third American film to feature the character, puts him in such good company with John Barrymore and Melvin Douglas who essayed the character before him.

   In Enter Arsene Lupin, Korvin is aboard the Orient Express in the guise of Raoul D’Andressy to steal the Kanares Emerald, but when he sees the owner, Anastasia ‘Stacie’ Kanares (Ella Raines, and well he might have second thoughts as she exudes sex appeal here) he returns the jewel, much to the disgust of his servant Armand Dubose (George Dolenz: “Women, it’s always women.”).

   Inspired by Stacie, Lupin changes his plans and heads to England, where Inspector Ganimard (J. Carroll Naish) soon follows as Lupin begins denuding the nations museums.

Ganimard: “Lupin, he is tall thin, short fat, slight stocky, fair and dark.”

British Police Sergeant: “Well, if you want me I’ll be in out over and under the nearest pub.”

   But Ganimard has an inspiration regarding Lupin’s favorite wine and finds six dozen cases were sold at auction to one Raoul D’Andressy. In the meantime, Lupin, driving to Wainbridge Manor to see Stacie, is just in time to rescue her when her brakes give out at speed on a steep hill. She invites him to meet her British cousins, Bessie (Gale Sonddergard) and Major Charles Seagrave (Miles Mander), who inform him Stacie is suffering a mental breakdown after the loss of her grandfather Kanares and believes she is still in possession of the emerald that was stolen on the Orient Express.

   Lupin is of course suspicious since he stole and returned the emerald himself, and the next day when Stacie invites him to go fishing and he finds a deadly viper in her picnic basket he is certain her cousin and her husband are out to gaslight her, murder her, and steal the emerald, leaving him only one solution, to steal the emerald first.

   An act complicated when Ganimard shows up on his doorstep just after he has hung the real Rembrandt he stole in a frame that held a cheap print. Lupin is left playing a game of cat and mouse as well as snakes and ladders to outwit Ganimard (“No one outwits Ganimard but Ganimard himself.”), steal the emerald, and keep the cousins from murdering Stacie.

   Korvin makes a properly suave and European Lupin, with his exchanges with his exasperated valet and partner in crime Dolenz full of quiet wit.

Lupin: “I was born with a conscience.”

Dubose: “A conscience, what is that?”

Lupin: “The ability to know right from wrong.”

Dubose: Whistles “Sounds like a terrible handicap to me, Msieu.”

Lupin: “Luckily I had the strength to overcome it.”

   While it can’t compare with the original Arsene Lupin with Barrymore and his brother Lionel as Ganimard, it’s a charming B-programmer, running at around sixty-five minutes, and wittily scripted by Bertram Millhauser. Whether Universal ever intended it as a series or not, it’s a shame it wasn’t picked up. Korvin was ideal as Lupin, whether in ascot or top hat, cape, and tails, and the film has more than enough twists and turns for any two films of its length.

   The romantic scenes with Raines have real snap to them, and if the cat and mouse play with Naish isn’t in the same class with the two Barrymores, it is still fun to watch between the Columboesque but capable sleuth and the suave gentleman thief, the twists coming right to the final shot.


MURDER AT THE VANITIES. Paramount, 1934. Carl Brisson, Victor McLaglin, Jack Oakie, Kitty Carlisle, Jessie Ralph, Charles Middleton. Written by Carey Wilson and Joseph Gollomb. Directed by Mitchell Leisen.

   A backstage Musical/Mystery so strikingly off-beat and off-color one can quickly forget how dreadful it really is.

   Charles Middleton plays Homer Boothby, a hammy actor who may have gunned down Gertrude Michael, who was blackmailing young lovers Carl Brisson and Kitty Carlisle (two romantic leads who seem singularly colorless even in a black & white movie) threatening to deport sweet old Jessie Ralph, abusing flighty maid Beryl Wallace, and threatening distaff detective Gail Patrick, who had the goods on her.

   Got that? Well pay it no mind because the real leads here are Victor McLaglen and Jack Oakie, who play Bluff Lust and Brainless Cupidity to perfection, as a tough cop and a harried stage manager trying to solve the murder while the show goes on — as it must, you know.

   Vanities offers a plethora of suspects, a tiresome plot and some impressive proscenium-bound production numbers, of which the most memorable is the musical ode to Marijuana, capped off when a cute young thing emerging nude from a Marijuana blossom (!) finds blood dripping from the catwalk down over her bare shoulders.

   With all this going for it, one can almost overlook the fact that you don’t really give a damn about the bland young lovers or the cardboard suspects. Just sit back and enjoy the show, folks.


THE MAN BEHIND THE MASK. MGM, UK, 1936. Re-released as Behind the Mask. Hugh Williams, Jane Baxter, Ronald Ward, Maurice Schwartz, George Merritt, Henry Oscar, Donald Calthorpe, Kitty Kelly. Screenplay by Jack Byrd, Syd Courtney, Ian Hay & Stanley Haynes, based on the novel The Chase of the Golden Plate by Jacques Fitrelle (sic). Directed by Michael Powell.

   This short but fast moving and complicated thriller based on a novel by American mystery writer Jacques Futrelle (his name misspelled in the titles) has a better pedigree than most, with legendary director Michael Powell (half of the famous Archers production company with Emric Pressberger, and director of Black Narcissus and The 49th Parallel among others) at the helm and novelist Ian Hay working on the dialogue.

   Nonetheless it is strictly B movie material, though slickly done and masterly paced so you never have time to ask questions as the novel’s complex plot and myriad mixed identities and double crosses unfold. It plays out like an Edgar Wallace thriller more than a Jacques Futrelle mystery.

   Lord Slade (Peter Cawthorpe) is giving a masked ball to show off the prize of his collection, the golden shield of Khan. The police are in attendance in the person of Chief Inspector Mallory (George Merritt) dressed as Frederick the Great, and a mysterious fellow dressed as Voltaire (Henry Oscar) playing chess with him as they watch the shield.

   Also in attendance are Lady June Slade (Jane Baxter) his daughter, the mysterious East Indian Harrah (Gerald Fielding), Dr. Walpole (Donald Calthorp) the famous surgeon, and Marion Weeks (Kitty Kelly) the doctor’s wisecracking assistant and housekeeper (“I’m dressed as Shirley Temple as Madame Dubarry.”).

   Not in attendance are Lord Slade’s wastrel son Jimmy (Ronald Ward) who argued with his father over money earlier and threatened to hold up a bank to get money if he had to, or Nicholas Barclay (Hugh Williams) a dashing pilot who is in love with June, and disliked by this lordship.

   June and Nicky have plans though; he’s to wear a disguise and slip into the ball, and at midnight when the lights go down he and June will slip away and get married with a special license he has obtained. But before he can even don his costume, he’s shot by an intruder in a mask, an intruder he believes to be Jimmy because of a triangle tattoo on his wrist, a tattoo that Jimmy, Nicky, and their dead friend Allan Hayden (Reginald Tate) all got back in school.

   With Nicky out, a man dressed as the Red Death enters the ball with Nicky’s invitation from June and the help of the butler aiding in the elopement. When the lights go down and everyone unmasks he steals the shield, and takes the car with June in it, being wounded in the shoulder by a detective whom he runs over as he escapes. June knows he isn’t Nicky, but is now a helpless captive.

   Meanwhile the mysterious Harrah travels to the estate of the Master (Maurice Schwartz), the astrologer who paid to have the shield stolen, but who has been double crossed by the thief and by Nadja (Morya Fagan) a follower to report his failure.

   Soon enough Jimmy is cleared, but Nicky didn’t go to the police thinking Jimmy shot him and instead went to be patched up by Dr. Walpole, and now the police want Nicky for the theft and running over the policeman and they know the thief was wounded in the shoulder, while the only clue Nicky has to the real thief is a tie he left behind sold by a haberdashery in a poorer part of London.

   From then on it’s a chase with Nicky, Jimmy, the Dr,, and wisecracking Miss Weeks pursuing the thief and Nadja to rescue June and return the shield, the police after Nicky with the Dr. in tow, and Harrah and the Master’s gang pursuing Nadja and the thief for the shield and eliminating anyone in their way, and when the policeman dies, Nicky is wanted for murder.

   The film is a fast paced diversion, confusing at times, fun with a solid cast, but mostly of interest for the direction of Michael Powell and being based on a novel by Jacques Futrelle (albeit one far inferior to his short stories).

   The real highlight is some brighter than usual dialogue and the scenes in the Master’s observatory, giving the film an almost science fictional feel with Maurice Schwartz, eyes hypnotic and mad, and hair in the style of mad scientist everywhere since Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, part Mabuse, part Fu Manchu, and madder than a hatter. It’s a little forgotten gem among mad villains.

   A nod also to Richard Tate as Allan Hayden, who, sporting a black fedora and checkered overcoat, looks uncannily like the illustrations of Leslie Charteris’s The Saint that ran in Thriller. He’s good as an old school tie type who hasn’t quite forgotten the form.

   The ending is a little rushed, and there isn’t so much as a final embrace for Nicky and June, at least not on screen, but it’s satisfying in its own way.

Editorial Comment:   Most of the available prints of this film are less than an hour long, but this one (which I haven’t watched in its entirely) claims to be 1:33 long. If so, then IMDb does not know about it, stating that the original version is believed to be lost:


YANKEE FAKIR. Republic, 1947. Douglas Fowley, Joan Woodbury, Clem Bevans, Ransom Sherman, Frank Reicher, Marc Lawrence. Written by Richard S. Conway and Mindret Lord. Directed by W. Lee Wilder.

   I was drawn to this because I wanted to see if Douglas Fowley really played the hero, and while I wasn’t thrilled, I at least kept watching; along the way I discovered a fascinating bit of background and much to wonder at.

   For one thing: Whence that title? Did they imagine folks would beat down the doors to see something called Yankee Fakir? And whence “fakir”? I’ve never met an actual fakir, but they’re well-nigh ubiquitous in The Arabian Nights, so I know one when I see one and there just ain’t any here in this movie.

   For another thing: This was released by Republic, Hollywood’s factory of low-budget thrills, but it’s an independent production by the semi-legendary W. Lee Wilder, older brother of Billy Wilder (you may have heard of him) and auteur of The Great Flamarian, Phantom from Space, Killers from Space, The Snow Creature and Man Without a Body.So you know what to expect. Yankee has none of the pace and polish one expects from a Republic western; in fact, it looks more like something that escaped from PRC or Monogram, what with Joan Woodbury and Douglas Fowley handling the leads.

   I’ve mentioned Douglas Fowley here before: Doc Holliday on TV’s Wyatt Earp; slow-burning director in Singin’ in the Rain; slimy bad guy in dozens of cheap westerns and the actual director of Macumba Love. That’s the guy. Here he loses his familiar snarky moustache and dons a flattering hairpiece as a traveling salesman who falls for a Border Ranger’s daughter and turns detective when someone does the old man in.

   Republic could have made a halfway decent B-western out of that — in fact they probably did, more than once — but Wilder pretty much fritters it away, with comic relief, a cute kid, local color, more comedy (I use the term loosely) and plot complications that pretty much go nowhere. Marc Lawrence, a figure associated with noir in general (and The Asphalt Jungle in particular) adds a moment of interest as a mysterious nasty, but not enough of them, even in a quickie like this.

   But beyond the fascination of seeing a confirmed miscreant like Fowley cast solidly against type, Yankee Fakir raised an eyebrow — not when I watched it, but when I went to research it and encountered the story of the writer, Mindret Lord. There’s not room enough to recount it all here, but I suggest you look him up on IMDB for a story much more intriguing than this feeble movie warrants.


BOMBAY MAIL. Universal Pictures, 1934. Edmond Lowe, Ralph Forbes, Sally Grey, Hedda Hopper, Onslow Stevens, Jameson Thomas, Ferdinand Gottshalk, Brandon Hurst, John Davidson, Walter Armitridge, John Wray, Georges Renavent. Screenplay: Tom Reed, based on the novel by Lawrence G. Blochman. Director: Edwin L. Marin.

   It’s hard to imagine what Hollywood would have done for detectives in the 1930’s without William Powell and Edmond Lowe. There is little doubt movie-goers would have been worse off.

   Here Lowe is Inspector Dyke (Pryke in the novel, and the change still doesn’t avoid some juvenile innuendo) of the Indian Police who has his hands full when Sir Anthony Daniels (Ferdinand Gottshalk), Governor of Bengal, is murdered with cyanide on the Bombay Express en-route to retirement. He can’t hold up the Express so he determines to investigate during the remaining journey to Bombay.


   And he has his hands full, with a train load of red herrings, many with motives to kill the late governor, including Lady Daniels (Hedda Hopper) who argued with her husband about his flirtation with a Russian opera singer and happens to collect butterflies and worse seems to have misplaced the cyanide used to euthanize them; Beatrice Jones of Canada (Sally Grey), who people keep mistaking for Sonia Smeganoff, the White Russian opera singer who apparently was a prostitute in Calcutta; John Halliday (Onslow Stevens) an American miner who desperately wanted to see the Governor and is carrying valuable sapphires about in his tobacco pouch.

   And there are more: R. Xavier (John Davidson) a mysterious Eurasian who will do anything to steal the jewels from his former partner, Halliday, and who, hired a mysterious Italian, Martini (John Wray) to steal them; Dr. Maurice Renoir (Georges Renavent) a French expert in toxins who is unusually protective of his medical bag.


   Still more: the Maharajah of Zungara (Walter Armitridge) traveling with Daniels to plead to remain in control of his little kingdom; Pundit Garnath Chundra (Brandon Hurst) a Ghandi like revolutionary with no love of the British; the Governors military advisor Captain Gerald Worthing (Jameson Thomas) facing charges for being seen in the company of a certain Russian opera singer; and the Governor’s secretary Captain William Luke-Paton, who has a thing for fast, and slow, horses.

   There are bodies hidden in lavatories, screams in the night, an assassination and frameup, a pesky cobra, lies within lies, and a straight forward gathering of the suspects as the train nears Bombay and time runs out to identify the murderer.

   Dated as it is, this is an entertaining murder on a train film with an outstanding cast, and fortunately closer than most to the fine book (first in the Inspector Pryke series) it is based on. Lowe is ideal as the tough leering no nonsense sleuth, and both Stevens and Grey have some fun as people thrown together by the sheer amount of lies they are telling and mutual attraction. There is a harrowing crossing of the rooftops of the speeding train, some clever escapes, and a tense confrontation with a King cobra in a small railway suite.

   All and all it is just about a perfect example of what it is, a fast-paced Hollywood murder mystery from the classic era.


DANGER ON THE AIR. Universal Pictures, 1938. Nan Grey, Donald Woods, Jed Prouty, Berton Churchill, William Lundigan, Richard ‘Skeets’ Gallagher, Edward Van Sloan, Lee J. Cobb, (Peter) Lind Hayes, Louise Stanley. Based on the Doubleday Crime Club novel Death Catches Up With Mr. Kluck, by Xantippe. Director: Otis Garrett.

   Despite too many characters and too much plot to be crammed into a 70 minute running time, this proved to be an enjoyable little murder mystery. This is, of course, what happens when a full length detective novel is the basis of a film — “crammed” is exactly the right word.

   As perhaps the title would suggest, most of the movie takes place in a radio studio, setting that movie audience in 1938 would have little chance seeing for themselves on their own. Dead is one of the biggest sponsors the Cosmopolitan Network has, an obnoxious micro-manager and lecherous old goat named Caesar Kluck. He’s someone who people take objection to at first meeting, so the killer could be almost anyone.

   Teaming up to solve the case are a studio technician (Donald Woods) and a girl production assistant (Nan Grey). They’re somewhat of a mismatched couple. He’s studious and dull; she’s vivacious and very pretty. There are loads of veteran character actors on the scene as well, but the film also includes some relative newcomers such as Peter Lind Hayes (who does voice imitations of then current radio stars, including Bing Crosby) and Lee J. Cobb, who at a very young age played an aged ethnic janitor with considerable ease.

   Because of the short running time, the plot doesn’t make a lot of sense, zigzagging this way and that so that everybody in the studio is shown as a possible suspect, and worse, the killer’s motive comes right out of some magician’s hat. Bear with it though, and you may enjoy this one as much as I did.


THE NINTH GUEST. Columbia, 1934. Donald Cook, Genevieve Tobin, Hardie Albright, Edward Ellis, Edwin Maxwell, Vince Barnett, Helen Flint, Samuel S. Hinds. Director: Roy William Neill. Shown at Cinefest #14, Syracuse NY, March 1994.

   The first movie to be given a midnight showing was The Ninth Guest, a literate mystery based on a novel by Gwen Bristow and Bruce Manning and originally published by the Mystery League in 1930 as The Invisible Host (a fact of which the writer of the program notes left the audience blissfully unaware).

   The novel and film with the familiar plot device of killing off guests invited for a party/weekend in the country/reading of a will predates the Christie novel And Then There Were None (1939) and the film version of the same title (1945) by nine and eleven years respectively, but The Ninth Guest film although it does not have the casting luster of René Clair’s And Then There Were None, is a stylish, moody thriller that deserved better scheduling than the midnight showing it received.


THE DRAGON MURDER CASE. First National Pictures, 1934. Warren William, Margaret Lindsay, Lyle Talbot, Eugene Pallette, Helen Lowell, Robert McWade, Robert Barrat. Based on the novel by S. S. Van Dine. Director: H. Bruce Humberstone. Shown at Cinefest #14, Syracuse NY, March 1994.

   The Dragon Murder Case, 1934, with Warren William replacing William Powell as Vance in four of the five previous entries in the series, was quite entertaining, and gave me infinitely more pleasure than any Van Dine novel I have ever read. High marks go to this film for the clever plot that generates a few genuine chills with a suggestion that there may be a real dragon in the pool where the first murder takes place.

   William is a great favorite of film convention audiences and always gets an enthusiastic hand during the credits. Here, he had relatively little to do, but he did it with intelligence and humor, albeit without Powell’s aristocratic poise. The Kennel Murder Case remains the classic Philo Vance film, but The Dragon Murder Case is worth seeking out.


GUILTY AS HELL. Paramount, 1932. Edmond Lowe, Victor McLaglen, Richard Arlen, Adrienne Ames, Henry Stephenson, Ralph Ince. Written by Arthuir Kober and Frank Partos. Directed by Erle C. Kenton.


   Well they were the hands of Henry Stephenson, playing a doctor who murders his wife in the opening minutes of the film and frames her lover (Richard Arlen) for the crime. We know that right at the start, so why they made a big deal of it in the ads is anybody’s guess — whoever heard of a movie ad being misleading?

   Anyway, Guilty As Hell finds Lowe and McLaglen once again reprising their “friendly enemies” act from What Price Glory, this time with McLaglen as a tough police detective out to nail Richard Arlen, and Lowe as a wise-cracking reporter (are there any other kid in these movies?) smitten with Arlen’s sister and determined to clear her brother — and score some points.

   And so it goes. The repartee isn’t terribly sharp, and the plot hinges on a couple of rather obvious fulcrums, but Lowe and McLagen seem to have fun batting their lines back and forth, and Ms. Ames is delightful to look at. What makes Guilty memorable, however, is the visual stylings of director Kenton and cameraman Karl Struss.

   Kenton and Struss worked together to memorable effect on Island of Lost Souls, and here they seem to realize they need to give the viewer something to focus on besides the plot. Hence the movie is filled with eye-catching moments that never seem contrived but always effective: startling zoom-ins on the characters’ faces, a death-row scene done in silhouette, a swift, startling shoot-out, and even a murder reflected in a pair of glasses, more than twenty years before Strangers on a Train.

   Guilty As Hell will never make any list of great movies — in fact I may forget all about it before 2017 is over; but I’m glad I started the year with something so fast and fun.

WOMAN ON THE RUN. Universal Pictures, 1950. Ann Sheridan, Dennis O’Keefe, Robert Keith, John Qualen, Frank Jenks, Ross Elliott, Joan Fulton, J. Farrell MacDonald, Steven Geray, Victor Sen Yung. Screenplay: Alan Campbell and Norman Foster, based on the short story “Man on the Run” by Sylvia Tate (American Magazine, April 1948). Director: Norman Foster.

   This is the best movie I’ve seen so far this year. And I have a feeling that when the end of December comes around, there’s a good chance I’ll still be able to say that. I’m sure it will be in the Top Ten. Just wait and see.

   While Ann Sheridan is the woman on the run that the title says this movie is about, it is really her husband, Tom Johnson (Ross Elliott), who’s on the run, and it is her job to find him, if only the police wouldn’t keep getting in the way. It seems that he was the sole witness to a gangland killing, and once he realizes that his life is in danger, off he goes, no matter how much protection the police say they will give him.

   It is a puzzle at first when Mrs. Johnson does not seem at all heart-broken over her husband’s disappearance. She is cold, bitter and cynical, all in one. It turns out that their marriage was not a happy one, but egged on by an eager newspaper reporter (Dennis O’Keefe), who promises her a sizable cash reward for the story, she avoids the police and goes on her husband’s trail.

   It should come as no surprise that she learns about her husband surprises her, and she soon begins to follow the path he has left for her in earnest. This was a good part for Ann Sheridan, and she makes the most of it, even though (once again) the movie is in black-and-white, and she is almost always wearing a trenchcoat (feminine style).

   I rather wish that the killer who’s on the husband’s trail wasn’t revealed so soon, just past halfway through, but this is still a tense, near edge-of-the-seat kind of story, filmed on location in downtown San Francisco, Fisherman’s Wharf, and the Santa Monica Pier. (The scenes on and around the roller coaster are wonderful.) And Ann Sheridan’s transformation from a hard-boiled not-much-of-a wife to an woman who sees at last who her husband really is, is well worth the price of admission.

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