Mystery movies


THE DRUMS OF JEOPARDY. Tiffany Productions, 1931. Warner Oland, June Collyer, Lloyd Hughes, Clara Blandick, Hale Hamilton, Wallace MacDonald, George Fawcett, Florence Lake, Mischa Auer. Based on the novel by Harold MacGrath. Director: George B. Seitz.

   One of the oddest things about this film, a small gem in its own way, is the name of the villain played by Warner Oland: Dr. Boris Karlov. From what I gather from Wikipedia, and what the heck, I might as well quote:

    “The name ‘Boris Karlov’ was used from MacGrath’s book and for the 1922 Broadway play, but by 1923 with actor Boris Karloff using the similar sounding variation, the film version renamed the character, played by Wallace Beery, ‘Gregor Karlov.’ In the 1931 film version, however, with Warner Oland playing the character, the mad scientist’s name is restored to ‘Boris Karlov,’ less than a year before Frankenstein would make Boris Karloff a household word for generations.”

   The reason Dr. Karlov is the villain is because of his totally irrational and demented hatred of the men of the Petroff family, one of whom seduced his daughter, leading directly to her death by suicide. Not knowing which one, father and three sons, he vows vengeance on all of them, even to the extent of following them from Russia to the US in his determined quest for revenge.

   The drums, by the way, come into play in a strange fashion. In the dead girl’s hand was found a necklace with charms in the shape of drums, with legend having it that if anyone is given one of the drums, that person will die within 24 hours.

   It is a good premise for a story, and the cast goes all out with it, especially Warner Oland in an early pre-Charlie Chan role, and June Collyer as art student Kitty Conover and Clara Blandick as her aunt Abbie, whose Manhattan apartment two of the Petroff brothers have sought a safe haven in.

   Fleeing further, but not out of the reach of the crazed Dr. Karlov, the fugitives head for a secluded cottage and nearby boathouse filled with spooky rooms and staircases, dank cellars and dangerous trap doors. And of course, as I recall, it was dark and stormy night.

   Perhaps I should not tell you this, but the villain of piece certainly gets what’s coming to him, and more. The acting is somewhat of a drag at times, as was common in talking movies produced as early as this one, but the action is always fast and furious.

   One could only wish for a better print than the one from Alpha Video that I watched, in terms of both picture and sound quality, but who’s going to spend money in restoring an old forgotten movie such as this one, no matter how fun it is to watch?

YELLOW CARGO. Grand National Pictures, 1936. Later released as Sinful Cargo. Conrad Nagel, Eleanor Hunt, Vince Barnett, Jack La Rue, Claudia Dell, Vance Carroll. Story, screenplay & director: Crane Wilbur.

   Pretty much a minor leaguer in the overall scheme of things, but this was the first of four crime and espionage movies featuring the two leading stars Conrad Nagel and Eleanor Hunt in a series of “G-Man” pictures, the other three being Navy Spy, The Gold Racket, and Bank Alarm, all from 1937.

   Conrad Nagel plays Alan O’Connor in all four, while his companion in crime solving is Bobbie Reynolds, played by Eleanor Hunt, about whom I will have more to say later. O’Connor works for immigration office in Yellow Cargo, sent to the west coast to breakup a gang who has been smuggling illegal immigrants from China into, while Bobbie Reynolds is a brash young newspaper reporter covering the movie industry.

   Their paths meet when they both learn that a small time movie studio is using a make-believe film to conduct their business, replacing movie extras dressed in Chinese garb by the men from China they are smuggling in.

   The movie is played as much for laughs and light entertainment rather than a serious crime drama, with balding Vince Barnett as the dimmest (and clumsiest) news photographer ever to try to take a picture with an old accordion box camera.

   You have to give the actors credit. They take their roles seriously, even if the story (lame) and production values (practically nil) are far beneath their ability. Stalwart leading man Nagel’s career lasted until the 1960s in both TV and the movies, but unfortunately Eleanor Hunt made only one more film after this series ran dry. Her large expressive eyes reminded me of Kay Francis, but with a much brassier demeanor. To add to the comparison, she also has a hint of a lisp.

   As a former chorus girl, Eleanor Hunt also had the legs to show for it, at least in one short scene in which her skirt came up above her knees. I don’t know why I noticed that, but I did.

   In spite of its various and sundry flaws and shortcomings, I enjoyed this less than 60 minute programmer, and I think I’ll look to see if the other three in the series can be found.

Reviewed by DAVID VINEYARD:         


WOMAN WANTED. MGM, 1935. Maureen O’Sullivan, Joel McCrea, Lewis Stone, Louis Calhern, Adrienne Ames, Edgar Kennedy, Robert Grieg Screenplay Leonard Fields, David Silverstein. Story by Wilson Collinson. Director: George B. Seitz.

   This one is a rapid paced comedy mystery with a much more attractive and accomplished cast than you might expect from this sort of light fare. It’s a good example of bright entertainment from the era enhanced by talent that far exceeds the material.

   Ann Grey (Maureen O’Sullivan) is a convicted criminal who finds herself freed when she escapes an accident in a car. As luck, and Hollywood screenplays, would have it the first person she runs into is Perry Mason-like fast-thinking and slick-defense attorney Tony Baxter (Joel McCrea).

   This being a movie, McCrea almost immediately decides Ann is innocent, and sets out to prove it with the help of his butler Peedy (Robert Grieg who played butlers as often as Arthur Treacher or Eric Blore), and as you might expect he has more problems than just the police: he also has to keep Ann hidden from his jealous finacee Betty (Adrienne Ames).

   Meanwhile the crooks led by Smiley (Louis Calhern), who actually did the murder Ann was convicted of, are waiting for her too, believing she knows where the $250,000 in war bonds the murder was committed for are hidden.

   This is Golden Age Hollywood and you don’t need much more than this to turn out a fast paced and entertaining little film. Woman Wanted is full of bright lines, O’Sullivan and McCrea are well matched, her innocence but underlying sensuality and his all American boy charm creating genuine chemistry on screen.

   Add to Tony’s other problems, his competitive old friend the District Attorney (Lewis Stone) suspects he has Ann and would like nothing better than to trim Tony’s sails for his habit of sailing blithely on the thin edge of the law.

   This one is in almost constant movement, and McCrea’s Tony Baxter actually proves to be as smart and quick on his feet as he is supposed to be. There are fewer really stupid acts by the hero than most film heroes display.

   Based on a story by Wilson Collinson (creator of Maisie), this little film delivers its full measure of entertainment painlessly and with a great deal of charm. McCrea and O’Sullivan are good as I said, Grieg has the priceless unshaken look of all great film butlers and valets (it seems every man in the thirties had his own butler or valet — you have to wonder why there was a depression and job shortage), and the scenes with Stone and McCrea have some of the feel of the best of Hamilton Burger and Perry Mason’s maneuvering.

   If you like bright comedy mysteries from this era, enjoy seeing stars like McCrea and O’Sullivan — attractive and young early in their career — or just want to kill an hour or so pleasantly this is the one for you.

This wouldn’t make anyone’s list of the ten best comedy mysteries of the period, but it would certainly make the list of those that were entertaining and accomplished every goal set for the form.

   This woman and this movie will be wanted by any lover of the comedy mystery form.

A DANGEROUS PROFESSION. RKO Radio Pictures, 1949. George Raft, Ella Raines, Pat O’Brien, Bill Williams, Jim Backus, Roland Winters. Director: Ted Tetzlaff.

   First of all, I have to confess that I don’t understand George Raft’s popularity as a movie star, and I assume he had to have been popular at the time, or how did he manage to be given leading roles in as many movies as he was? His demeanor is stiff and wooden, he barely breaks a smile now and then, and when his does, his eyes don’t seem to match what his mouth is trying to convey.

   But I will concede that he’s better in this low budget movie than others I’ve seen him in. The first part of A Dangerous Profession is also rather interesting, so let me tell you about that before getting into what eventually does go wrong, which it does, or at least I thought so.

   Raft plays Vince Kane, the lesser partner in a bail bondsman company, the other partner, the one with the money, is Pat O’Brien, who is mostly out of the picture (figuratively as well as literally) for the first part of the movie. The husband of the woman that Kane once had a brief affair with (Ella Raines) has been picked up by the police in connection with a bond security robbery, which also left a policeman dead.

   Bail is therefore set high, $25,000, and the man’s wife (and Kane’s former flingmate) and her lawyer can come up with only $4000. But out of the blue another lawyer who claims to be representing her brings in another $12,000. She says she doesn’t know anything about it, but Kane chips in another $9000 of the firm’s money, thus incurring Pat O’Brien’s wrath.

   It’s a neat setup for a good story, and so it seems doubly so when the husband gets bumped off, and the police in the form of Jim Backus’s character isn’t happy about that. George Raft, in the guise of Vince Kane, is caught in the middle.

   But the story goes downhill from here. The crooks are are dumb as Shinola, and whoever wrote the script had no idea what to do with Pat O’Brien’s character. He’s all over the map in terms of what his role is in this movie, good, bad or indifferent, and I’m not sure the fellow who wrote the script knew either. I kind of like guys who choose sides, or whose side is chosen for him, and we know whose side he’s on, especially when the movie’s over, if not before.

   Nor do I, as a brief postscript, think that Ella Raines should be happy with whoever was in charge of photographing her. Only briefly are glimpses are seen of of her in full noirish beauty.

THE POWELL TOUCH
by Walter Albert


   In 1935 and 1936, William Powell followed his 1934 starring role in MGM’s The Thin Man with two RKO comedy-mysteries, Star of Midnight and The Ex-Mrs. Bradford, both of them directed by Stephen Roberts.

   In Bradford Jean Arthur is the ex-Mrs. Bradford who turns up at the beginning of the film to have physician Bradford (Powell) served a subpoena for non-payment of alimony; in Star, Ginger Rogers is Donna Manton, a social butterfly in love with lawyer Powell who claims to have more fun solving cases than trying them and whose friends consider him to be a combination of Charlie Chan, Philo Vance and the Sphinx.

   Bradford is a racetrack mystery and Star a Broadway mystery, both versions of the classic form of amateur detective considered by less-than-bright homicide detectives to be a prime suspect in a murder case.

   Bradford has the more original conclusion with the suspects invited to a meeting at which a film reveals the murderer’s identity, but Star is better paced and has some more polished acting in secondary roles, particularly by Vivian Oakland as a former girlfriend of Powell’s and Gene Lockhart as a somewhat unconventional butler who didn’t do it but is drafted for some ironic sleuthing.

   Arthur and Rogers, both fine actress/comediennes, are delightful foils for Powell’s stylish drollery and each has at least one scene that is a standout: Arthur in a brilliant closing sequence and Rogers in a comic tum as she foils Oakland’s play for Powell.

   Powell’s earliest appearance as an urbane amateur detective was in The Canary Murder Case, in which Jean Arthur also appeared, and by 1935 there was no more adept player of drawing-room comedy-mysteries.

   The actor is probably no less accomplished in Bradford and Star than he is in The Thin Man, but it is certainly debatable whether, as William Everson maintains in The Detective in Film (Citadel, 1972), The Thin Man is “almost” equaled by the two lesser known movies.

   The level of craftsmanship in all three of the films is very high, but I think that the decisive elements in the superiority of The Thin Man — and in its continuing popularity — are the inspired pairing of Myrna Loy, who matches Powell’s arch style with her own elegant delivery and movement, and first-rate scripting by Albert Goodrich and Frances Hackett, and directing by W.S. Van Dyck.

   Script, direction, and performance come together in an extraordinary tour-de-force that climaxes the film. The wrapup party sequence in The Thin Man still dazzles as Powell delivers what is in effect an extended monologue and it is this perfectly timed scene, a classic example of the “cosy” mystery denouement, that, for me, makes The Thin Man the success that Bradford and Star achieve only in part.

   Both actresses were on the verge of major stardom when they appeared with Powell. Loy would, of course, continue the role of Nora Charles in five sequels, and also appear in films like The Great Ziegfield, The Rains Came, The Best Years of Our Lives, and Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House.

   The Thin Man is usually seen as the one in which Loy escaped type casting as an Oriental temptress — most notably as the daughter of Fu Manchu in The Mask of Fu Manchu (1932) — but non-Oriental roles in films like Love Me Tonight (1932), Topaze (1933) and Manhattan Melodrama (1934) suggest that her film roles were far more varied than they are usually thought to have been.

   An oddity in the casting of Arthur is that she had played in three Fu Manchu films (in 1929 and 1930) and in the early thirties was better known as an actress in melodramas than as the star of comedy/dramas as she was subsequently to be.

   By an equally ironic reversal, Rogers, after her dizzying success with Fred Astaire, would establish herself as a dramatic actress in the late thirties and forties, but with Astaire and with Powell she demonstrates an apparently natural comedic talent and a freshness that makes her performances with them among her most engaging.

   [Almost eighty years] after their original release dates, The Thin Man and the two “forgotten” films, Star and Bradford, are entertainments that largely defy the passage of time. In addition, all three films — and one must add to the list James Whale’s brilliant 1935 baroque send-up of the drawing-room mystery, Remember Last Night? — are a tribute to the popularity of the amateur sleuth mystery in the 1930s and to the professional and artistic integrity of this genre.

   The Thin Man gains some lustre in the context of related films but also should remind us that it operated out of a tradition that still gives pleasure for its wit and invention and, in particular, celebrates the career of one of the screen’s most distinguished player of amateur detectives, William Powell.

— Reprinted from The MYSTERY FANcier, Vol. 8, No. 5, Sept-Oct 1986.


HORROR ISLAND. Universal Pictures, 1941. Dick Foran, Leo Carrillo, Peggy Moran, Fuzzy Knight, John Eldredge, Lewis Howard, Hobart Cavanaugh, Walter Catlett, Ralf Harolde, Iris Adrian. Director: George Waggner.

   Sometimes you’re expecting one thing and you get something else. Not all the time, not most of the time. It’s actually rather seldom, and sometimes it doesn’t turn out well at all. But when it does — and I imagine you’ve guessed by now that this is one of those times — it’s makes you feel great just to be able to stand up and tell other people about it.

   Or maybe just a little foolish.

   Horror Island may not be to all tastes. You have to be fond of creaky but often still entertaining tales of old dark houses or mansions, isolated for one reason or another from the rest of the world — snowbound, stormbound (lots of thunder and lightning), or the like — filled with strangers, mostly, with some kind of evil or sinister presence among them, or controlling them in weird or evil ways for some nefarious purpose unknown.

   And — of course! — lots of hidden panels and secret passageways, suits of armor perhaps with eyes peering out from within, painting with peepholes and in active use. You know what I mean. It’s all kind of silly and fun, except when the dead bodies start to pile up, at which point your sense of make believe has to kick in. The actors are not taking this all very seriously, so why should you?

   What makes Horror Island a little different is that it takes place on (guess what) an island, where two enterprising entrepreneurs (Dick Foran and Fuzzy Knight) have created a tourist trap mystery-adventure cruise, complete with a castle-like mansion and all the trimmings (see above). And naturally a treasure map that helps attract a small boatful of various individuals of both genders and with all kinds of motives (not all of them good).

   Even though this came in a boxset of DVDs entitled Universal Horror: Classic Movie Archive (along with such non-ringers as The Black Cat, Man Made Monster, Night Monster and Captive Wild Woman), you will noticed that I have classified this as a comedy as well as a mystery. And so it is, and if you’re in the same mindset as I am, it’s a gem.

Reviewed by DAVID VINEYARD:         


STREET OF CHANCE. Paramount Pictures, 1942. Burgess Mededith, Claire Trevor, Sheldon Leonard, Jerome Cowan, Frieda Inescort, Adeline de Walt Reynolds, Louise Platt. Screenplay by Garrett Fort based on The Black Curtain by Cornell Woolrich writing as William Irish. Score: David Buttolph. Directed by Jack Hively.

   Street of Chance is film noir before anyone knew they were making film noir and while there are noir touches in the black and white cinematography and low lighting, it is primarily the script based on Cornell Woolrich’s novel Black Curtain that makes this noir and the presence of actors such as Burgess Meredith, Claire Trevor, and Jerome Cowan.

   When ordinary joe Fred Thompson, Burgess Meredith, is almost killed by a beam falling from a construction site (shades of the Flitcraft story in The Maltese Falcon) he wakes up, stunned. He tells a policeman his name, but when he reaches in his pocket he finds a cigarette case with the initials DN and his hat has those same initials sewn in it. Shaken up and confused he goes home only to find his wife moved out — a year earlier.

   He finds his wife Virginia, Louise Platt, and she is delighted to have him back but has no more explanation than he does as to what happened. He obviously has amnesia, and recovering those memories of that missing time becomes vital when he discovers DN, Danny Neary, is wanted for murder.

   Danny Neary’s trail leads him to the Diedrichs (Frieda Inescort and Jerome Cowan), their bed ridden grandmother (Adeline de Walt Reynolds), and nurse Ruth Dillon (Claire Trevor). Did Danny Neary really murder someone or is he the fall guy for the hothouse drama and conspiracy in the Diedrich household? This part of the film is as much a gothic as noir drama with Meredith our Jane Eyre.

   Street of Chance is an entertaining enough film, and the actors are fine, but it sounds better than the film really is as far as noir goes. It drags a bit once the main story line kicks in, and there are no surprises, not even the big shocker at the end.

   Leave it to say Meredith is cleared by a dying statement overheard by the cop, Sheldon Leonard, who has been after him and by Grandma Diedrich even though she can’t speak. It’s Woolrich’s story that marks it as noir more than any other factor. Unlike The Maltese Falcon, I Wake Up Screaming, or Laura, the noir elements here are mostly accidental or budget matters, not attempts at style or German Expressionism. Even the low lighting is mostly budget and not art, though there are attempts at visual distinction by director Hively and cinematographer Theodor Spakuhl.

   Without a visual equivalent of Woolrich’s overheated, sometimes purple prose, there is none of the feverish near hallucinatory quality that marks the best noir films. Despite these caveats its not a bad film or a bad adaptation of Woolrich’s novel from the fabled black series.

   It’s only that it’s more noir in retrospect based on our familiarity with noir than it was all that obvious at the time. Films such as those I mentioned earlier or Alan Ladd’s This Gun For Hire and The Glass Key were much more obviously noir. Some of William Castle’s B “Whistler” films are as much noir as this.

   A more faithful and more noirish version of this appeared as the 9th episode of the first season of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour twenty years later under its original title, directed by Sydney Pollack, with Richard Basehart in the lead and with Lola Albright as Ruth. Any noir aspects there were deliberate.

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