Mystery movies


THE SPANIARD’S CURSE. Independent Film Distributors, UK, 1958. Tony Wright, Lee Patterson, Susan Beaumont, Michael Hordern, Ralph Truman, Henry Oscar. Screenplay by Kenneth Hyde, Ralph Kemper, Roger Proudlock. Story by Edith Pargeter. Directed by Ralph Kemper.

        “I call for the four of you to meet me before the Assizes of the Dying, and answer for your crimes …”

   The film opens with a pickpocket (mild mannered Henry Oscar) outside a theater (**) relieving a man of the contents of his overcoat pocket, then focuses on the date displayed in a store window. The titles run and as the date changes we cut to a headline that the jury is about to come in on the murder of an actress.

   We cut to the jury room where a military type bullies the meek foreman into a guilty verdict though the evidence is circumstantial and the crime calls for the death penalty, then under attack in England. The verdict is rendered and Justice Manton (Michael Hordern) delivers the death penalty.

   The accused man then speaks, reiterating his innocence, and uttering the curse of the title, a call for the Judge, the Council, the Foreman of the Jury, and the real killer to stand with him in a higher court, the “Assizes of the Dying,” and hear their judgement. In short, to die with him and be judged.

   Listening to the proceedings, are the judge’s newsman playboy son Charley (Tony Wright), his ward Margaret (Susan Beaumont), and the victim’s Canadian cousin Mark (Lee Patterson). When Mark and Margaret meet later in a tea shop they admit they think the convicted man, Stevenson, is innocent, but don’t plan to do anything about it until they witness the curse seeming to come to life … the jury Foreman is hit and killed by a car outside the court in front of them.

   There is not much more I can reveal without giving too much away. Stevenson dies the next morning, and the day after a piece of jewelry from the crime is pawned casting doubt on his guilt.

   One by one the characters are revealed, layers of deception stripped away, and suspicion cast on them even as Margaret and Mark, with help from crime reporter Charley, investigate the crime.

   The solution may be obvious to readers of this blog, but it is a good mystery, with numerous reasonable red herrings, more than a modicum of suspense, and that mysterious curse, the summons to the “Assizes of the Dying” that like one of John Dickson Carr’s logically explained impossible crimes, still has the hint of sulfur and brimstone long after the fact.

   The finale and last scene are the perfect wrap up to a solid sub-Hitchcockian suspense film with more than its share of fair play detecting.

   Solid performances bolster this excellent mystery film, especially from Wright who previously scored as the sociopathic Jack Havoc in the film version of Margery Allingham’s A Tiger in the Smoke.

   And for anyone who didn’t notice, the story is credited to Edith Pargeter, the well-known and respected English historical novelist better known to us as Ellis Peters of the Felse family and Brother Cadfael mysteries.

   Find this one, it’s a sleeper.

(**)   In the opening the play advertised at the theater where the pickpocket’s crime sets the plot in motion is “Meet Mr. Coleman” and a faint bit of music reminiscent of the famous theme from the play and film Meet Mr. Callaghan is heard as the pickpocket lifts his loot.

   That may or may not also be a nod to star Tony Wright who would play Peter Cheyney’s British Private Detective Slim Callaghan in two French films. If not, the coincidence is even more intriguing in a film where coincidence plays such a fateful role.

WITNESS TO MURDER. MGM, 1954. Barbara Stanwyck, George Sanders, Gary Merrill, Jesse White, Harry Shannon, Juanita Moore, with Claude Akins, Sam Edwards, Burt Mustin. Director of photography: John Alton. Director: Roy Rowland.

   Witness to Murder came out the same year as Rear Window, but this one came first. Both have the same basic premise. The witness in Witness is a single woman living alone in an apartment (Barbara Stanwyck) who is woken up by the wind during the night, goes to close the window and sees is a man (George Sanders) strangling a woman to death in a room across the street.

   She calls the police, but after the laxest investigation you can imagine (Strike One), they find no signs of the murder and think she dreamt or imagined the entire incident.

   She persists, however, arousing the deep-seated enmity of Sanders, who cleverly connives to convince the police that she is in serious need of psychiatric treatment.

   This in spite of the growing attraction between Ms Stanwyck and the police officer in charge of the case (Gary Merrill). An attraction that is never convincing, I’m sorry to say, which is Strike Two against this film. Totally convincing, however, is George Sanders’ usual strong performance as a totally amoral cad of a killer.

   Also on the plus side is the black and white camera work under the direction of cinematographer John Alton. A striking dark windswept street sets the tone from the very beginning, and stark shadows appear in almost every scene thereafter.

   In terms of noir film-making, the slickness of what MGM produced often worked against them, and the relatively few they made are considered far less memorable than those of smaller companies. In this one, though, the photography at least is top notch, indeed, Grade A from beginning to end.

   There is no chemistry between Stanwyck and Merrill, however, and with a story line that’s only moderately compelling, Witness to Murder simply is not in the same league as Rear Window. Not even close.

TICKET TO A CRIME. Beacon Productions, 1934. Ralph Graves (PI Clay Holt), Lola Lane, Lois Wilson, James Burke, Charles Ray, Edward Earle, Hy Hoover, John Elliott. Based on the story of the same title by Carroll John Daly (Dime Detective Magazine, Oct 1 1934). Director: Lewis D. Collins.

   According to IMDb, this is the only movie based on the work of one of the most popular pulp fiction writers of his day, Carroll John Daly. He was a pioneer in the rough and tough PI genre, but his crude writing style has relegated him to an all-but-unknown status except to fans of the field.

   Daly’s most famous character was probably a gun-slinging private eye named Race Williams. Equally violent was a hardboiled police cop by the name of Satan Hall, who in his many adventures racked up nearly as many bodies as Williams. PI Clay Holt, the featured protagonist of this movie as well as the story it was based on, had only six recorded cases, four of them for Dime Detective.

   I’ve not read any of his adventures, but I can tell you this. The movie is not very good. Not if you want anything resembling an actual detective or mystery story. The plot has something to do with some diamonds that are worth $50,000, but beyond that, I cannot tell you more.

   Most of the just over 60 minutes worth of running time are taken up by (1) Holt suddenly coming to realize that his secretary (Lola Lane), who he hasn’t paid in six weeks, is actually beautiful once she takes her glasses off and dresses up for a gala party he invites her to by default (all of the other entries in his little black book turn him down).

   And (2) the humorously antagonistic byplay between Holt and his former buddy on the police force, Detective Lt. John Aloysius McGinnis (James Burke). Without either (1) or (2), there’d be absolutely nothing to see here. Even so, the movie seems to be far far longer than its actual running time.


THE MAN WITH TWO FACES. Warner Brothers, 1934. Edward G. Robinson, Mary Astor, Louis Calhern, Ricardo Cortez, Mae Clarke, David Laundau. Screenplay by Tom Reed & Niven Busch, based on the play The Dark Tower, by George S. Kauffman and Alexander Woolcott. Directed by Archie Mayo.

  THE DARK TOWER. Warner Brothers, UK, 1943. Ben Lyon, Anne Crawford, David Farrar and Herbert Lom. Written by Reginald Purdell and Brock Williams, from the play The Dark Tower, by George S. Kauffman and Alexander Woolcott. Directed by John Harlow.

   Two films based on the same play, and that’s about the only resemblance I can find between them.

   Man with Two Faces features Edward G. Robinson as a pleasantly hammy Broadway actor/director whose sister (Mary Astor) comes under the eerie spell of a palpable con man and Absolute Bounder, played by Louis Calhern. When Calhern threatens to ruin Astor’s life, Eddie decides to kill him and plans to get away with it by doing the deed disguised as a colorful and totally fictitious character based on his theatrical experience.

   The Dark Tower offers Ben Lyon as the American manager of a traveling circus in England who thinks it might be good publicity to put his pretty aerialist under the spell of a seedy hypnotist (played by Herbert Lom with equal parts Charles Boyer and Peter Lorre.) As the spell deepens and grows destructive, Ben realizes he has to put a stop to it … but can’t.

   Archie Mayo’s direction of Man is nothing to write home to Mom about, but it’s more than saved by the Kauffman-Woollcott script and the appropriately over-the-top playing of its leads.

   Louis Calhern is particularly memorable as The Nasty, and the script gives him all sorts of interesting bits. I especially liked the way he carried two rats around with him in a little cage, for the thrill having them at his mercy and because he enjoys seeing the servants scramble to clean out their cage and bring them fresh cheese. There’s also a neat turn by David Landau as a deceptively lackadaisical homicide cop. In all, a film well worth the time.

   Tower takes a bit longer to get things going, and once started, writers Burdell & Williams tend to dawdle a bit, but it fills the time with excellent turns by the supporting staff (I particularly liked Frederick Burtwell and Elsie Wagstaff as a pompous ringmaster and his knowing wife) and offers glistening photography by Otto Heller, who went on to Richard III and The Ipcress File. And the editor here was none other than Terence Fisher, who would helm the horror films that put Hammer Studios on the cinematic map.

   In all, two quite enjoyable films, but for me the best part was seeing how far apart the writers could bend the same material.

POSTMARK FOR DANGER. RKO Radio Pictures, 1956. Previously released in the UK as Portrait of Alison, Anglo-Amalgamated Films, 1955. Terry Moore, Robert Beatty, William Sylvester, Josephine Griffin, Geoffrey Keen, Allan Cuthbertson. Screenplay by Guy Green, based on a story by Francis Durbridge that was also used as the basis for the BBC television series Portrait of Alison broadcast earlier that year (six 30-minute episodes). Durbridge later converted the screenplay into a novel
of the same title (Hodder, UK, 1962; Dodd Mead, US, 1962). Director: Guy Green.

   I may not have all of the facts correct, but I haven’t found anything to contradict anything stated above. Durbridge, also the creator of Paul Temple, a British crime-solver extraordinaire not well known in the US, was a prolific writer of complicated mystery mini-series for the BBC in 50s, 60 and 70s, and this one has as many threads to its plot that can be fit into just under 80 minutes of running time.

   So much so that all the average viewer, using myself as a prime example, can do is to wonder is how on earth is there going to be a simple explanation for what’s going on? There is, but it can’t have been easy to have come up with a plot like this one and leave no loose threads hanging. It comes close, but if I were to run through the explanations again, I have a feeling that maybe there’d still be a few more questions than there are answers.

   It’s my kind of mystery movie, though, I can tell you that. It’s the story of three brothers, one an artist (Robert Beatty), the second a freelance pilot (William Sylvester) and the third, an investigative reporter who dies in the first scene, even before the opening credits, in a car going up in flames after going over a cliff off an isolated Italian mountain highway.

   There is, or was, a girl with him at the time, which is important, since she is the Alison of the British title. Before his death the third brother is said to have sent someone in England a postcard, but to who is not known, nor the significance of the drawing on it.

   In the meantime the father of the dead girl hires the artist brother to paint a portrait of her, which he does, only to find it later smeared with white paint and the body of a former model dead in his bedroom, and wearing the dress of the dead girl. The detectives from Scotland Yard are very skeptical of his story, which goes without saying.

   There is more, including some attempts at blackmail, more deaths and even more twists, including an apparent suicide (and I don’t remember if it was or not). And it’s all wrapped up rather neatly, subject to the qualifications I ran through above, filmed in beautifully noirish black and white.

   Robert Beatty is a fine actor, and while Terry Moore is very pretty, I’d prefer the company of the mush more vivacious model played by Josephine Griffin, who dies way too soon. Otherwise, I enjoyed it all, from beginning to end.

MOTIVE FOR REVENGE. Majestic Pictures, 1935. Donald Cook, Irene Hervey, Doris Lloyd, Edwin Maxwell, William Le Strange Millman, Russell Simpson, John Kelly, Edwin Argus. Director: Burt P. Lynwood.

   Just because some moves have managed to survive to the present day does not mean that they are gems of any sort, semi-polished or completely in the rough. Take Motive for Revenge, for example. It is a movie that tries, but that fact is, it does not have any idea what kind of movie it is trying to be.

   First it is a comic noir film, with a henpecking mother-in-law hectoring her wife’s husband (Donald Cook) to commit a crime; then he’s caught, and it’s a prison film, complete with extended scenes of convicts marching in formation in and out of their cells.

   Then it’s a crime film, with Cook out of jail and looking for his wife (Irene Hervey) and her new husband (she didn’t wait for him, as she promised); then a murder mystery, when the new husband being shot, and neither Cook nor Hervey sure whether the other did it or not; then a chase film, as the cops (including two of the dumbest clucks to be promoted off the beat) try to nab the two of them, first on board a yacht then in a couple of speedboats racing along the shore. All in a running time of some 60 minutes.

   It’s really not very good at any of these. While Cook stands around brooding a lot, the mostly charming Irene Hervey largely steals the show, but it would have helped if her character showed at least one ray of intelligence. Some of the rest of the characters are vaguely familiar, but that’s who they were, I’m sure, character actors all of their careers.

MURDER ON THE WATERFRONT. Warner Brothers, 1943. Warren Douglas, Joan Winfield, John Loder, Ruth Ford, Bill Crago, Bill Kennedy. Director: B. Reeves Eason.

   A no-name cast, and it matches the script. An inventor of a new type of thermostat for the Navy is murdered, and a mysterious “rajah,” one of a group of entertainers brought down to the shipyard, is suspected. It turns out that he was court-martialed years earlier, and Mr. Lewis (that’s the inventor’s name) was one of those who testified against him.

   Several hand grenades, stabbings, shootings and general high jinks later, the case is solved, but which one of the many navy personnel is was, I couldn’t say. They all looked alike to me. (Obviously it wasn’t the rajah, mostly because that would be too obvious.) It may be a cliché, but it’s true. They certainly don’t make movies like this any more.

— Reprinted from Mystery*File #24, August 1990 (slightly revised).


BLACKMAIL. Republic Pictures, 1947. William Marshall, Adele Mara, Ricardo Cortez, Grant Withers, Stephanie Bachelor, Richard Fraser, Roy Barcroft, George J. Lewis, Tristam Coffin, Eva Novak. Screenplay: Royal K. Cole & Albert deMond, based on the story “Stock Shot” by Robert Leslie Bellem in the July 1944 issue of Speed Detective. (Added later; see comments.) Director: Lesley Selander.

   So, the folks over at Republic, acquire this story by Robert Leslie Bellem about none other than our pal Dan Turner, the Hollywood Detective, he of the colorful patter and the dames falling at his feet and mostly out of what clothes they are barely wearing, inspiring some of the most outrageous euphemisms for the female anatomy in the history of the English language.

   Assuming it is the English language. With Dan Turner you can’t be sure.

   Anyway, here is our Dan (William Marshall) sporting the moniker Daniel J. Turner, a New York Eye imported to Hollywood to work for big time playboy Ziggy Cranston (Ricardo Cortez, and no relation to Lamont) who owns among other assets a radio network.

   Seems Ziggy has been playing with some rough types, and he is so scared he even pulls a gun on Dan. Lucky for Ziggy, Dan is playing nice and doesn’t slug him the way he did Ziggy’s chauffeur who tried to crease Dan’s pork pie with a wrench by way of greeting.

   Everybody is on edge but Dan, and you don’t want to get Dan on edge.

   Turns out Ziggy is a playboy first class, and somebody is blackmailing him claiming to have evidence he murdered a singer of the very female type. Ziggy swears the chanteuse wasn’t killed by him, but he wants the blackmailer off his back and can’t afford the bad publicity.

   Even though Dan has traveled across the country, he’s not so sure he wants to get involved. Too bad for him, the blackmailers already figure he is involved and would like to do something permanent about that.

   Like six feet under permanent.

   As you might expect, Dan is soon up to his eyebrows in wise cracks, fists, and dames like classy Sylvia Duane (Adele Mara) plus hoods with names like Spice Kellaway, Blue Chip Winslow, and Pinky (Roy Barcroft, George J. Lewis, and Tristam Coffin), a Pepe Le Peu named Antoine le Blanc (Richard Fraser) and a tough cop named Donaldson who would like Dan to quit shooting up the local hoodlums and go back to New York.

   Not our Dan though. Not when Ziggy is arrested for yet another murder, and only Dan has the grey matter needed to untwist the tangled web of who murdered whom and why, and drive Donaldson batty too.

   It’s a pretty fast paced affair you might enjoy if you take off your size twelves and sit back with a bourbon and chaser to ease you over the bumpy parts. The screenplay at least tries to capture something of Dan’s colorful badinage, and if the dames aren’t quite as pneumatic as those in Mr. Bellem’s stories, well, those models didn’t come along until a few years later with the likes of MM, Jayne, Diana D, and Mamie.

   The Marshall guy tries hard, and at times almost succeeds though he’s plenty vanilla for a guy as colorful as Dan Turner. And it is a Republic picture so the fights are first class. Nobody can fault a Republic stuntman when it comes to action.

   But I have to admit I sure wish the censor had shut his sensitive little ears and let Dan riff on some of his favorite anatomical assets. That Bellem music is unique like Krupa on the drums or Harry James on the horn, and this little cinema masterpiece could sure use it, hard as it tries.

DEAD MEN DON’T WEAR PLAID. Universal Pictures, 1982. Steve Martin, Rachel Ward, Carl Reiner, Reni Santoni. In archival footage: Ingrid Bergman, Humphrey Bogart, James Cagney, Joan Crawford, Bette Davis, Brian Donlevy, Kirk Douglas, Ava Gardner, Cary Grant, Alan Ladd, Veronica Lake, Burt Lancaster, Charles Laughton, Fred MacMurray, Ray Milland, Edmond O’Brien, Vincent Price, Barbara Stanwyck, Lana Turner and more. Screenplay: Carl Reiner, George Gipe & Steve Martin. Director: Carl Reiner.

   Laughter is contagious. Watching a comedy film in a theater with a few hundred other people is one thing. Even if the comedy is not so hot, if one person starts laughing at a scene, no matter how lame it is, you may find yourself laughing too. You can’t help yourself.

   It’s why the TV networks came up with the idea of laugh tracks, and that was a long time ago.

   Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid is another kettle of fish altogether. I watched this one on DVD with only one other person watching with me, and I found myself laughing out loud any number of times. I couldn’t help myself. This does not happen often.

   I can’t say that this would happen to everyone. Some people can’t watch black and white movies. I can understand that. It’s difficult for me to watch silent movies. Some people don’t care for noir movies from the 40s. That I don’t understand, but there’s no accounting for tastes.

   Steve Martin plays a 1940s Sam Spade kind of private eye in this one, a guy named Rigby Reardon, and he’s hired by a beautiful dame (Ranchel Ward) who hires him to investigate the reported death of her father in a car accident along a deserted mountain highway. From that point on, there’s no real need to explain what happens (because I can’t), but surprisingly enough, I’m willing to wager that it actually makes sense.

   For what is interspersed with the case that Rigby Reardon is working on are archival clips from maybe a dozen film noir movies from the 40s, sliced in perfectly to not only move the story along but to also fit in as smooth as silk with whatever comic antics Steve Martin is doing on screen, including voice-over narration.

   I’m sure all of you know this already, and each of you has your own personal favorite scenes. But speaking personally, if I may, I think this film is a work of genius, and if by chance you have never seen it but you have read this far into the review, you absolutely should. See it, that is. Don’t deprive yourself any longer.

  CASTLE IN THE DESERT. 20th Century Fox, 1942. Sidney Toler, Arleen Whelan, Richard Derr, Douglass Dumbrille, [Victor] Sen Yung. Based on the character created by Earl Derr Biggers. Director: Harry Lachman.

    A Charlie Chan movie, as you may have guessed, and the last done by 20th Century Fox. It takes place, not surprisingly, in an isolated castle in the desert, 35 miles from civilization. Its owner is a medieval historian who insists on doing his research in authentic surroundings, complete with working dungeon.

    What’s more is that his wife, as it turns out, is a descendant of the notorious Borgia family, and when guests begin mysteriously dying, Charlie is brought in. Lots of mysterious events also then begin to happen, but none of them of a substantial sort. Still, this film does contain one of my favorite sayings, even though Charlie himself didn’t come up wth it. Blame this one on his Number Two son:

    “Man who sit on tack better off.”

— Reprinted from Mystery*File #24,, August 1990. (very slightly revised).

Note:   Dan Stumpf has also reviewed the film on this blog. Check out his comments here.

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