Mystery movies

Reviewed by DAVID VINEYARD:          

MIDNIGHT. Universal Pictures, 1934. Re-released as Call It Murder. Humphrey Bogart, Sidney Fox, O. P. Heggie, Henry Hull, Margaret Whycherly, Lynne Overman (as Lynn Overman), Richard Whorf, Helen Flint, Henry O’Neill, Moffatt Johnston (as Moffatt Johnson). Screenplay by Paul and Claire Sifton based on their play. Director: Chester Erskine (as Chester Erskin (also uncredited on the screenplay).

   Copies of this film available today credit Humphrey Bogart as the star, but that seems to have been unlikely in the 1934 release. Had he been top billed in this one, his career would likely have taken more than a mere six more years to take off. This film isn’t kind to anyone. I suspect it is no accident three people spelled their names differently than normal in the credits. I wouldn’t want this dog on my resume either.

   Most annoying of all the many things annoying about this film is the arty way it is shot, with too much use of the subjective camera, long speeches by actors looking directly into the camera, and tricky shots that only serve to emphasize just how silly and overdone the plot really is. The handful that do work even halfway just remind you how bad the rest of the film is.

   O. P. Heggie plays self righteous Edward Wheldon, who, as foreman of the jury in the trial of Ethel Saxton (Helen Flint), persuades the jury to convict her of first degree murder. Come the night of the execution, he is scheduled to listen to a live special broadcast of the event on his home radio and crowds have gathered outside his front door, so the tension is starting to wear on him and his absolute certainty of the law and everything else.

   Meanwhile his children Stella (Sidney Fox) and Arthur (Richard Whorf) feel the pressure and have no desire to stay home and listen as a woman, whose condemnation to death is dubious at best, dies. Nolan (Henry Hull) is a reporter who wants an exclusive inside the home during the broadcast, who uses brother in law Joe Biggers (Lynne Overman) as his ticket inside, and who twists the knife once in.

   Tension or not, when Saxton’s lawyer (Henry O’Neill) shows up hoping to get something out of Wheldon that could lead to a stay, he only gets another self-righteous letter of the law speech.

   Humphrey Bogart is Gar, a young man who Stella met at the trial the day Ethel Saxton was convicted. Gar is a dubious character attracted to Ethel who knows he is no good for her or her for him and is leaving for Chicago the night of the execution to work as a collector for the mob, but he plans to see Stella one more time after making a last local collection. Let’s just say he is exactly the type you would expect to be named Gar.

   As the execution nears. Wheldon breaks under the pressure, and only after a self-serving speech about upholding the letter of the law he makes to the public on his doorstep, does he find out that at the moment of the execution Stella was down the street in Gar’s flashy sports car and shot him.

   Exit Humphrey Bogart a bit over forty six minutes into an 87 minute film without so much as a death scene.

   Nolan finds the body, puts two and two together, and calls in District Attorney Plunkett (Moffatt Johnston). At this point things become murky, because it is never really clear whether the DA actually thinks Stella didn’t shoot Bogart and confessed only because of pressure over the execution or is trying to prevent another miscarriage of justice by letting her off.

   Like almost everything else about this film, the murk is unrelieved by the over-acting and the peculiar way the film is shot. If the DA is letting off the self-righteous Wheldon and his hysterical daughter — who freaked out so much she shot a man who was not harming her in any way — the decision is just bizarre. In either case the explanation he gives for his decision is pure gibberish, even by the lax standards of melodrama, and the cheapest kind of pop psychology.

   I suppose there is some attempt to make this seem more like a stage play with the actors all walking center front to make their speeches, and some may be impressed with the camera work and the attempts to provide some style to the proceedings, but for me it just makes the film ponderous, artificial, and melodramatic in the worst way.

   It doesn’t help that Hull and Overman are the only two actors the bit least comfortable on screen — you get the feeling Bogart knew this wasn’t going to do his career any favors and he seems properly chagrined to be in it — or that Moffatt Johnston — who plays sleuth and gets to dominate most of the final fifteen minutes of the film — has a heavy accent and all the screen charisma of a rock as he delivers the nonsensical explanation of the crime and its solution.

   I will give minimal credit to one shot of a policeman standing guard in front of Wheldon’s house as the camera moves close in on his badge, only to pull back, revealing the policeman standing guard in front of Ethel Saxton’s cell as she breaks down, though it falls into the even a broken clock is right twice a day category. That, and the execution itself are well handled.

   This film wasn’t released into the public domain; more likely no one wanted to claim it. It is more like something unpleasant that won’t die because Humphrey Bogart is in it.

   There is one touch of irony. At film’s end Hull steps outside in the dark, puts on his fedora, and lights a cigarette briefly illuminating his face. It is the kind of scene that will become iconic of Bogart for much of his career, but even silent films can’t be saved by a couple of interesting camera set ups, and this one is not. Not even a film student or an academic trying to make a career in film criticism by finding a gem among the dreck could make anything but a wreck out of this.

A live version of the first song on jazz singer Karrin Allyson’s CD In Blue (2002).

Reviewed by DAVID VINEYARD:          

THE CANARY MURDER CASE. 1929. William Powell, Louise Brooks, James Hall, Jean Arthur, Eugene Pallette. Screenplay by Florence Ryerson. Titles by Herman J. Mankiewitz. Story and Dialogue by S.S. Van Dine (his novel uncredited). Directed by Malcolm St. Clair and Frank Tuttle (the latter uncredited for filming scenes for the sound version).

LA CANARINA ASSASSINATA. Episodes 3 and 4 of Philo Vance, Italy, 10 & 14 September 1974. Giorgio Albertazzi, Stefania Cossini, Giovanni Guerrieri Teleplay by Biagio Proiretti and Belisarrio L. Randone, based on the novel The Canary Murder Case by S. S. Van Dine. Directed by Marco Leto.

   Ogden Nash’s well deserved kick in the pants aside, Philo Vance dominated the American detective story in the Golden Age as an influence on such stellar sleuths as Ellery Queen and Nero Wolfe, to name two, from the school founded by Wilfrid Huntington Wright writing as S. S. Van Dine. It was only natural he was one of the first fictional American sleuths to find his way to the big screen when talking pictures made the traditional Golden Age mystery a Hollywood staple. (Craig Kennedy was one who beat him to the screen, thanks to Arthur Reeve’s involvement in early serials.)

   Veteran silent screen villain William Powell (he was loathsome as the blackmailing stool pigeon Italian Legionaire in the Ronald Colman version of Beau Geste) was Vance on screen, erudite, charming, and suave, with a human side the novels never gave Van Dine’s hero. In The Canary Murder, an early talkie, Vance is involved when Margaret O’Dell (Louise Brooks), the Canary of the title, a nightclub entertainer and serial blackmailer and twenties style vampire is murdered in her flat. There are multiple suspects, including the son of one of Vance’s close friends (James Hall), and Vance is drawn into the case by District Attorney Markham, to the annoyance of veteran homicide detective Sgt. Heath (Eugene Pallette). Powell’s compassion as Vance is as much in the forefront as is intelligence and elegance, a quality that is intellectual and aloof in the novels but human in Powell’s hands.

   Canary was the second Vance outing for Powell (he appeared earlier that same year in The Greene Murder Case, mentioned in this film in passing), and he comes to it assured and natural on screen despite the drawbacks of early sound. Most of the flaws of early sound films are noticeable here, but what is also notable is how at ease Powell, Pallette, and ingenue Jean Arthur are despite the difficulties. You never see them playing to the mike, which is more than can be said for anyone else in the movie. The other actors enunciate painfully, stumble, and otherwise make it evident how hard they are constraining themselves to stay in range of the primitive stationary microphones, and how poor their skills at learning dialogue are.

   One black actor playing the nightman at the apartment where the Canary is murdered is given a painfully drawn out and racially offensive stutter that make his scenes actually unpleasant to watch, aggravated by the fact he is struggling both with the microphone and remembering dialogue (not unique to him, of the actors in this film only Powell, Pallette, and Arthur seem to have any concept of learning dialogue).

   You will find yourself wishing for the ease and comfort on screen of Stepin Fetchit, Mantan Moreland, or Willie Best, and how much grace and skill they brought to these scenes. This is doubly ironic since in print the Van Dine school of the detective story was noted for its tolerance and racial sensitivity.

   Cult actress Louise Brooks has a terribly thankless role as the victim though the novel is rewritten to give her more screen time (in the book she is dead at the beginning). She is dubbed, and badly, by a Bronx accented actress, and there is little attempt to sync her lips with the voice. She mostly speaks with the back of her head turned to the screen or off screen while the camera lingers on her beauty when she is silent. The silent era style still evident in early talkies is most evident when she is on screen. Luckily for her, and for us, she still possesses a translucent beauty even then. It is hard not to watch her even with her back to the camera.

   The highlight of the film is a poker game where Vance hopes to trap the killer by recognizing the psychology of the murderer. In yet another deviation from the novel the killer dies before he can confess and Vance has to detect how the crime was done to free an innocent man who has confessed to protect another. Even Van Dine, who provided the screen story and dialogue, seemed to realize his coldly intellectual ubermensch would be a bit much on screen and seems to have approved of the various attempts to humanize him on screen even doing so himself in The Gracie Allen Murder Case.

   The clue that the mystery turns on is fairly famous and well known, but if anyone wants to know it, we can cover it in the comments section to save any red flags. It is far from fair play in the film, and though Vance explains how he spotted it, the viewer has no chance to do so. We are shown afterword what the actual clue was, but there is no way the viewer could have spotted or understood it. This is not really a variation from Van Dine, whose clues could involve specialized knowledge of such subjects as the properties of heavy water, the works of Goethe adapted to opera, higher mathematics, Egyptology, modern art, and modern German criminology.

   The film, like Greene before it, and unlike many early talkies, has a few stylistic touches from the German expressionist school of film making, including a nice number with Brooks swinging high above her audience and flirting with her lovers in the audience below. I am going to assume that and other such touches were the work of Frank Tuttle, since I don’t know credited director Malcolm St. Clair’s work. Hopefully if I am wrong someone will set me straight.

   While far from a masterpiece, this is a good film worth seeing for more than its historical import. If nothing else it is worth seeing how natural Powell was speaking on screen at this early date, a rare role for the legendary Brooks, and a young but already assured Jean Arthur.

   La canaria assassinata (the lack of capitals is European style) adapts the Van Dine book in two parts for Italian television and first aired in September 1974. Very much in the style of the Ian Carmichael-Lord Peter Wimsey adaptations, this black and white production is not only faithful to Van Dine, but also handsomely done with Art Decco sets and twenties style clothing.

   Giorgio Albertazzi is Vance, and the closest to Van Dine’s creation yet on screen, every inch the monocled, ’g dropping, Nordic superman described by his creator. If he lacks Powell’s charm (and almost everyone does), Albertazzi is much closer physically and psychologically than Powell to Van Dine’s creation. If you ever wanted to see Vance done on screen as he was in the books this is your chance.

   The actors here are attractive and smart, and while there is no dubbing or subtitles available, anyone who has read the book will have little trouble following this. Ironically this and The Greene Murder Case of both the Italian and the Powell series from Paramount are available on YouTube to compare.

   The Italian series of Philo Vance stories is every bit as faithful and attractive as the sixties Italian Nero Wolfe series that is also available on YouTube for lovers of Rex Stout’s rotund sleuth. Both show a fealty to the original works that is seldom seen in American television, and frankly more faithful to the written word than many of the British adaptations of Agatha Christie and others.

   When the hardboiled school took the forefront in American mystery fiction, Van Dine and Vance bore the brunt of the criticism, and the reaction against the clearly artificial school of mystery fiction mostly settled on their shoulders, fairly or not. Vance and his creator became the face of that school of the Golden Age of the detective story, and only Ellery Queen and Rex Stout truly survived the sea change, thanks to EQ’s evolution as a character and the hard boiled voice of Archie Goodwin and wit of Rex Stout.

   By the post-war era, they were the only survivors of the sea change, and Van Dine was out of print from the forties until the sixties and then available only sporadically until the Fawcett paperback series (the same thing happened to Dorothy Sayers, the British writer closest to Van Dine in some ways).

   Truth be told, by the time of the later Vance books, Van Dine and his creation were showing signs of growing weary and the Vance books formula had become too obvious. Still, in his time Philo Vance was the face of the American mystery, popular on film and radio and a subject of satire even in Will Gould’s comic strip Red Barry, where Gould’s tough undercover tec often shows up an amateur clearly based on Vance, something that needed no explanation to readers.

   The Canary Murder Case and La canarina assassinata are two handsome adaptations of Van Dine to the big and small screen and tributes to the popularity of Philo Vance. Whatever the flaws of Van Dine, the school of mystery he founded, or Philo Vance as a character, they are old friends to me, and I always enjoy revisiting them, especially when done as well as they are here.


CONFLICT. Warner Brothers, made in 1943, but not released till ’45. Humphrey Bogart, Alexis Smith, Sydney Greenstreet, Rose Hobart. Screenplay by Arthur T. Horman and Dwight Taylor, from the story “The Pentacle” by Robert Siodmak and Alfred Neumann. Directed by Curtis Bernhardt.

   An off-beat misfire that has its moments, Conflict will disappoint some Bogart fans, because it reverses the stereotype: Bogie is the bad guy here and Sydney Greenstreet the amateur detective who trips him up. And when I say that, I’m not selling any state secrets: The capsule reviews of this film all say up front that Bogie kills wife Rose Hobart and makes a play for sister-in-law Alexis Smith. The slip-up that incriminates him is perfectly obvious to mystery fans the second he makes it, and director Curtis Bernhardt even throws in a reaction shot of Sydney Greenstreet — well — reacting to the clue.

   The real plot of Conflict hovers around Bogart’s growing suspicion that the wife he thoroughly killed is not actually dead –- or worse, that she may be dead, but making her presence felt anyway; her personal effects show up in odd places, notes in her handwriting land on his desk… The sense of Bogart’s growing dread in a world gone awry would become a staple of film noir, but since we know they’re on to him, and we’ve figured out this is Greenstreet’s strategy for making him tip his hand, it counts for very little here.

   On the other hand, I have to say that Conflict was done with the usual Warners’ care and polish. There are some striking visuals here, with the studio fog machine pumping full-blast, and some intelligent dialogue that coveys the weakness in our protagonist but retrains our sympathy.

   And there is one aspect of Conflict (whatthehell does that title mean, anyway?) that deserves discussion and it’s the kind of thing that is better discovered than described, so I’m giving the following WARNING! If you think you might see this movie sometime in the near future or remember these comments unduly, skip the next paragraph!

   At the ending, tormented by fear, Bogart betrays himself and finds it’s all been a (sigh) trick. We were expecting this all along, but it’s handled in a surprisingly insightful fashion. As Bogart prepares to face his worst fears and make the mistake that will cost him dearly, the camera angles upward to his face, lit from below, like a man at the edge of a precipice summoning up the courage to jump.

   And when he’s caught, what comes across most compellingly is his sense of relief. His capture is not so much comeuppance as catharsis, and there’s an unexpected look of relief on his face as they slap the cuffs on him and lead him upwards toward the light; the whole ending, in fact, is played with a surprising sense of redemption that seems to put the rest of the film in a whole new context — one of the unexpected and perhaps inadvertent pleasures that sometimes come out of Hollywood.


THE CIRCUS QUEEN MURDER. Columbia, 1933. Adolphe Menjou, Greta Nissen, Donald Cook, Dwight Frye, Ruthelma Stevens. Based on the novel About the Murder of the Circus Queen, by Anthony Abbot (Fulton Oursler). Director: Roy William Neill. Shown at Cinefest 18, Liverpool NY, March 1998.

   One of the disappointments of the convention. Menjou plays Anthony Abbot’s Police Commissioner Thatcher Colt, vacationing in a small town, where the arrival of a circus and an attempted murder draws him reluctantly into the center of a hastily conducted investigation. But not hastily enough.

   The beginning is promising and Colt’s secretary (Ruthelma Stevens) registers strongly as an attractive, smart companion, but her role is never sufficiently developed and the lame melodrama is capped by an underpowered, restrained performance by Dwight Frye that never ignites. (He’s much livelier in The Vampire Bat [Majestic, 1933], a cheap but entertaining thriller that I watched last night on a cheap video tape. He reprises his Renfield role from Dracula, even using the Renfield laugh.)

Editorial Note:  This move was also reviewed by Dan Stumpf some time ago on this blog. Check it out here.

CRIME DOCTOR. Columbia, 1943. Warner Baxter, Margaret Lindsay, John Litel, Ray Collins, Harold Huber, Don Costello, Leon Ames. Based on the Crime Doctor radio series created by Max Marcin. Director: Michael Gordon.

THE CRIME DOCTOR’S COURAGE. Columbia, 1945. Warner Baxter, Hillary Brooke, Jerome Cowan, Robert Scott, Lloyd Corrigan, Emory Parnell, Stephen Crane, Anthony Caruso, Lupita Tovar. Director: George Sherman.

   Crime Doctor began as a radio program, running on Mutual from 1940 to 1947. Four of them are available online on the website. Listening to the first of them, “Eddie Brooklief’s Money,” I was not impressed.

   After twenty minutes of story in which the killer is completely identified to the listeners, Benjamin Ordway, the Crime Doctor, comes on to give the police the evidence they need to close the case, in only a couple of minutes of airtime. Frankly, I heard nothing in this episode to explain how the series managed to stay on the air for as long as it did.

   This may or may not have been the pattern of the other three shows, however, nor for that matter, all eight years the program was on the air. The original premise, as I understand it, was that before he became a prominent psychiatrist and a rehabilitator of criminals, Dr. Ordway was a criminal mastermind who somehow came down with amnesia and became a figure of good on the other side of the law.

   Crime Doctor was the first in a series of ten movies starring an aging (and ailing) Warner Baxter as Robert Ordway, and in retelling the basic premise as I outlined it above, once again I was less than impressed. In the film, Ordway’s former colleagues in crime had a falling out with him, and tried unsuccessfully to bump him off, without, however, knowing where their $200,000 in stolen money is.

   But, hence the amnesia, which the aforesaid former colleagues do not know whether to swallow or not, even after ten years have gone by and Ordway is head of the state parole board. It all sounds kind of silly, and it did even as I was watching it. Perhaps they tried to squeeze too much story in only 65 minutes of running time, as large gaps of story are sometimes skipped over between scenes.

   The Crime Doctor’s Courage, the fourth of the movies, has a serious case of split personality. In the first half the new wife of a man whose first two marriages ended in tragedy during their honeymoons asks Dr. Ordway for help. She would like to know if she should be worried.

   Compounding her concern is the brother of the first wife, who accuses Gordon Carson outright of murder. After a confrontation, Carson goes into his room, locks the door, and is shot to death. Suicide? The Crime Doctor proves it couldn’t have been.

   At which point the brother-in-law disappears (as far I could tell), and the focus of the story becomes the Braggas, a mysterious brother and sister, the highlight of whose dancing act consists of the sister vanishing into thin air during a portion of it.

   There are also hints that they may be vampires. They sleep in coffin-shaped beds, stay away from mirrors and are never seen in the daytime. After some confusing transition scenes and lot of action in an old dark mansion, the real killer is caught. How he manged to carry out the locked room gimmick, I’ll never know.

   Keep me in the Still Not Impressed column.


THE HOUSE OF FEAR. Universal, 1945. Basil Rathbone, Nigel Bruce, Aubrey Mather, Dennis Hoey, Paul Cavanagh, Holmes Herbert, Harry Cording, Sally Shepherd. Screenplay: Roy Chanslor, based on the characters created by Arthur Conan Doyle. Director: Roy William Neill.

   Yet another in the superior “B” series produced and directed by Roy William Neill, starring Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce. This one — very loosely based on “The Adventure of the Five Orange Pips” — offers a disparate group of bachelors sharing their fortunes at a remote Old Dark House somewhere on the Gothic Coast of England until they start getting murdered one by one, their gruesome demises presaged by anonymous missives filled with orange seeds.

   Purists at the time complained loudly about this — Watson actually solves the case before Holmes does — but I found it charming, with the skillful interplay of the leads set neatly off once again by Neill’s off-noir lighting and intelligent pace.

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