Mystery movies


REVIEWED BY DAN STUMPF:


RADIOLAND MURDERS. Universal, 1994. Brian Benben, Mary Stuart Masterson, Ned Beatty, Scott Michael Campbell, Jeffrey Tambor, Stephen Tobolowsky, Michael Lerner, Anita Morris, and too many comic supporting players to name. Check IMDb. Screenplay by Willard Huyck, from a story by George Lucas. Directed by Mel Smith.

   A Financial flop for Universal and Lucasfilms (but I kinda like it), this looks like His Girl Friday layered over Murder at the Vanities, transposed to a glittery world of Technicolor Art Deco.

   At the maiden broadcast of a new Radio Network, the owner (Ned Beatty) throws a lavish gala for prospective affiliates and sponsors while an unknown killer methodically murders various executives, announcing each killing in advance with a menacing bit of doggerel over the speakers. Meanwhile the staff hustles frantically to keep things running, scriptwriter Brian Benben struggles to keep his wife (Mary Stuart Masterson) from leaving him, and the various “talents” involved contend with scriptless dramas, dropped cues and a temperamental revolving stage.

    Radioland never achieves the bawdy gaudiness of Vanities or the cinematic chemistry of Friday, but what it lacks in charisma it makes up in chaos. Brian Benben spends the whole film dangling from ledges or racing down hallways, chased by cops and/or sponsors, and often in a variety of disguises keyed to whatever musical number is up next.

   These musical numbers are a treat in themselves as bandleader Michael McKean re-jiggers his troupe to look like a panoply of Big Bands, from Xavier Cugat to Spike Jones, with stops along the way for dead-on recreations of the Andrews Sisters, young Frank Sinatra, and even Cab Calloway, all done so well I wished we could have stayed with them longer.

   But it ain’t so. Radioland keeps moving too fast for more than summary scraps of classic hits—though it does pause a bit longer for the ersatz Spike Jones insanity. Less happily, the Writer’s Room at the studio bubbles over with brilliant comics, none of whom get to do anything funny. Disappointing and wasteful.

   So it’s a measure of the movie’s energy that I forgave this mortal sin. Indeed, I barely noticed it. In the scheme of things, Radioland Murders doesn’t amount to much and never will. But it’s definitely a worthwhile time-waster.


REVIEWED BY DAN STUMPF:


WHIRLPOOL. 20th Century Fox, 1949. Gene Tierney, Richard Conte, Jose Ferrer, Charles Bickford, Barbara O’Neil, Eduard Franz, Constance Collier. Screenplay by Ben Hecht and Andrew Solt, based on the novel Methinks the Lady by Guy Endore (Duell Sloan & Pearce, 1945).

   Editor’s Note: Before continuing on to read Dan’s review of this film, I strongly advise you go back nine years or so on this blog and read his review of Methinks the Lady, the book by Guy Endore the movie was based upon. You can find it here. Use the reverse arrow on your browser to find your way back, and I hope you will.

               —

   Methinks the Lady was filmed in 1949 as Whirlpool, with a screenplay by Ben Hecht, produced and directed by Otto Preminger as yet another attempt to cash in on the success of Laura (1945), Obce again we get Gene Tierney as the innocent re-shaped by a loquacious Svengali — in this case Jose Ferrar as a quack doctor — and implicated in murder.

   But where Endore’s novel was a Mystery (and so was Laura) we know from the outset that Ferrar is up to something, and we catch on very quickly that he means to frame Gene Tierney for murder. The suspense is in figuring out just how he means to get away with it, and seeing how Tierney will slip out of the web … or if she will…

   Writer Ben Hecht thus turns the book completely inside-out, and he does it to good effect, with neatly-drawn characters and mounting suspense building to an ending that’s plaindamn silly but still lots of fun. Preminger’s direction is elegant as ever, and as for the acting…

   Well, Gene Tierney is surprisingly effective in the more emotional stretches, and there’s Ricard Conte, a strong actor too often wasted in bland parts, here wasted in a bland part. But the show really belongs to Jose Ferrar as the talkative quack, and he makes the story the slimy most of it, exuding an unpleasantness that seems compelling at times without ever engaging audience sympathy. Which I think just the effect they were trying for.


FEMALE JUNGLE. American International, 1955. John Carradine. Lawrence Tierney, Jayne Mansfield, Kathleen Crowley, Burt Kaiser, Bruno Ve Sota, Eve Brent (billed as Jean Lewis). Screenplay by Burt Kaiser and Bruno Ve Sota, based on a story by the former. Produced by Burt Kaiser. Directed by Bruno Ve Sota.

   No matter if it’s only a second- or third-rate movie, you can’t go very far wrong if it begins with a wailing saxophone playing over a darkened street scene, followed by a woman coming rushing out out a neon-lit bar, only to be seen strangled to death, her body left lying in the street.

   This doesn’t leave Eve Brent, in her first movie role, very much screen time, but that fact is mitigated by the presence of Jayne Mansfield in this film, also in her first movie role. Even more significant is the strong performance by Lawrence Tierney in a leading role, that of a drunken police sergeant who’d been in the bar that evening, but who has no memory of what he did for long periods of time while he was there.

   He may even have committed the crime himself. He is not sure, and not knowing is eating away at him. Even though he’s not on duty and has officially been told to go home and sleep it off, he takes it upon himself to do some investigating on his own. The primary suspect is John Carradine, who plays a cultivated but somehow creepy looking newspaper columnist who had escorted the dead woman, an actress, to the premiere of a movie and party afterward earlier that night.

   The story line of the movie is even more complicated than that, however. There is a night club caricaturist involved, and his wife, with whom he has had a fight. And then there’s Candy Price, played by Jayne Mansfield, who appears to be a woman of easy virtue and who lives in the apartment below them. The movie is in black and white, with a lot more black than white, which adds immensely to the pervading atmosphere of hidden motives and underlying menace.

   If this sounds like your kind of movie, it probably is, but I have to add one big warning. The script is not up to tidying up any loose ends that are seemingly tossed aside, even after the movie’s over. The film doesn’t work as a detective story, in other words, which it pretends to be, but as a top notch film noir, it’s aces high.


MANHANDLED. Paramount Pictures, 1949. Dorothy Lamour, Sterling Hayden, Dan Duryea, Irene Hervey, Phillip Reed, Harold Vermilyea, Alan Napier, Art Smith, Irving Bacon. Screenplay by Lewis R. Foster & Whitman Chambers, based on the story “The Man Who Stole a Dream,” by L. S. Goldsmith. Director: Lewis R. Foster.

   There are some positive aspects to this film, including an absolutely bravura performance by Dan Duryea, but sad to say, there aren’t enough of them for me to give you more than a very tepid recommendation that you see it, if you haven’t done so already. And that’s especially true if, attracted by either the title or the names of those in the cast, you’re expecting a solidly built film noir.

   And a solidly built film noir is not what this is. Maybe the first ten minutes, in which we see a husband, obviously impatiently waiting for his wife to come home with her current boy friend or so he assumes, followed by an argument which culminated with in crashing a perfume bottle down on her head, killing her instantly.

   It’s a chilling scene that’s beautifully photographed. It’s too bad, then, that it was all a dream, as the husband is next seen telling his psychiatrist all about it. The dream, that is. The doctor tries o alleviate the husband’s fears, but he also seems inordinately interested the wife’s jewelry, which are said to be worth something $100,000.

   Which is a lot of money, then or now, and when the wife is subsequently found murdered, in identical fashion to the husband’s dream, of course the jewelry is missing. At which point the film shifts into its real reason for existing: a fairly ordinary murder mystery. Did the husband really do it, or if not, who else knew about the dream and jewelry? The doctor, of course, or perhaps the PI (Dan Duryea) who lives in the apartment immediately below the doctor’s secretary (Dorothy Lamour).

   I have not yet mentioned Sterling Hayden, who plays the insurance investigator assigned to the case, and whose eye is quick to notice that the secretary is an extremely attractive woman. You’d also think he’d be more involved with solving the case as well, but in spite of many opportunity to do so, the story goes off in another direction altogether.

   No, it’s Dan Duryea’s performance that carries the story, no doubt about it. He always played smooth but ultimately sleazy operators to the hilt, but in Manhandled he turns his trademarked unctuousness up a notch, or maybe three. A greater cad in all regards, you cannot imagine.

   The movie does get a little rougher — especially in the final fifteen minutes — but after the one additional twist I thought was coming never materialized, I was so non-interested as not to care. This one could have been a lot better than it actually turned out.

PS. The orecurring attempts to add some humor, especially the police car with no brakes, were truly lame, indeed.


NO MAN’S WOMAN. Republic Pictures, 1955. Marie Windsor, John Archer, Patric Knowles, Nancy Gate, Jil Jarmyn, Richard Crane, Fern Hall, Louis Jean Heydt, Percy Helton. Screenplay by John K. Butler, based on a story by Don Martin. Director: Franklin Adreon.

   Marie Windsor’s movie-making career was perhaps never destined to climb into the A-film category, but to me and many people I know, she was the Queen of the B’s, no doubt about it. She has top billing in this one, and she deserved it, even though she’s the kind of witch (“no matter how you spell it”) who’s destined to be killed off buy someone she’s crossed, and badly, soon after the halfway point.

   As Carolyn Grant, she’s the wife, for example, of a man (Suspect #1) who’s no longer in love with her, and in fact they live apart, and who would like to have a divorce to marry someone else (Suspect #2). He can’t meet her demands, however: alimony plus a six-figure additional payout. The husband’s father (Suspect #3) offers to meet her demands, but husband refuses to use his money that way.

   Carolyn meanwhile has her eye on the fiancé (Suspect #4) of the girl (Suspect #5) who works for her in her art shop. After insinuating her way into breaking up the engagement, add two more people would would be happy to see her dead.

   And that’s not all. Her lover of sorts is a local art critic/newspaper columnist [Suspect #6] who’s been plugging her art shop, to their mutual advantage, until he’s found out and fired. At which point Carolyn summarily boots him out of her life, laughing happily as she does so.

   All of which makes the first half of the movie a lot of fun to watch and await the inevitable. On the other hand, after Carolyn’s death, all of the built up tension is gone, and the movie turns into a straightforward murder mystery. It’s not a bad one as far as murder mystery movies go, and in fat it’s actually a very good one. The problem is, without Marie Windsor’s memorably brassy man-stealing performance to continue watching, anything that follows would have to have been, in comparison, a ten-story letdown.


REVIEWED BY DAN STUMPF:


INTRUDER IN THE DUST . MGM, 1949. David Brian, Claude Jarman Jr, Juano Hernandez,. Porter Hall, Charles Kemper, Will Geer, and Elizabeth Patterson. Screenplay by Ben Maddow, from the novel by William Faulkner. Directed by Clarence Brown.

   As much a mystery/suspense movie as a social-problem film, and excellent on both counts.

   Intruder opens with Lucas Beauchamp (Juano Hernandez) arrested for the murder of Vinson Gowrie — he was found standing over Gowrie’s body with a recently-fired pistol in his pocket—and the locals, egged on by Gowrie’s brother Crawford (Charles Kemper) feel it their civic duty to skip the formality of a trial, stalled only by the absence of Gowrie’s father (Porter Hall.)

   Enter Chick Mallison (Claude Jarman Jr) a spectator in the crowd who knows something of the aloof “uppity” Beauchamp, believes him innocent, and enlists his older-and-wiser attorney uncle (David Brian) to defend him in Court. If he ever gets there.

   Sounds like To Kill a Mockingbird before its time, but the characters surprised me: Juano Hernandez’ Beauchamp is remote and uncooperative. Porter Hall , who at various times in his career murdered The Thin Man, shot Will Bill Hickok, locked up Kris Kringle, and marooned Tab Hunter, is quite sympathetic here, while David Brian’s wise-looking lawyer is only slightly less benighted than the noose-swinging locals — he doesn’t wait to hear Beauchamp’s story, just wants to plead him Guilty, and has no intention of getting in the way of any lynch mob.

   BUT THEN….There’s a marvelous moment in Brian’s office, where Jarman interrupts his conference with a meek little old lady (Elizabeth Patterson, being sued for running over a chicken) and Brian rails about the impossibility of Beauchamp’s case. “Why did he have to murder a Gowrie? And if he did, why did he have to shoot him in the back?” Whereupon Patterson pipes up softly but firmly “Maybe he didn’t.”

   At which point the whole tone of the piece shifts. Patterson (who was also in The Story of Temple Drake) takes over the investigation, blockades the Jail and… and other stuff I won’t spoil for you. Suffice it to way she’s a tough and smart in her own way as Margaret Rutherford’s Miss Marple.

   I think this character was deliberately brought on quietly and allowed to grow, as do some others, making this a film that reminded me of Chandler’s dictum: The crime itself is less important than its effect on the characters. Or in this case, the effect of the characters upon the crime.

   Make no mistake. This is a Mystery Movie, albeit a fairly obvious one. Bodies get buried, moved, and dug up again, clues get gathered, and toward the end, Will Geer’s canny sheriff has a tense stand-off with a hidden killer.

   We also get some quietly pungent displays of passive racism, as when Jarman’s dad shrugs off a lynching with, “These things happen. And people like us do not get involved.” but scenarist Ben Maddow (The Asphalt Jungle, God’s Little Acre, etc) keeps the lesson implicit, and never preaches what he can show.

   So we get a good mystery here, and a thoughtful one. Mostly though we get to see human beings acting like people we know. And this is what makes Intruder in the Dust a film to treasure.


REVIEWED BY DAN STUMPF:


SHERLOCK HOLMES FACES DEATH. Universal, 1943. Basil Rathbone, Nigel Bruce, Dennis Hoey, Hillary Brooke, Milburn Stone and Vernon Downing. Screenplay by Bertram Millhauser, based on the story “The Musgrave Ritual” by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Directed by Roy William Neill.

   A turning point in Universal’s Sherlock Holmes series, as Director Roy William Neill took the Producer’s reins, weaned the stories away from Wartime propaganda, and told Basil Rathbone to go comb his hair.

   Fans know this as the one set in creepy Musgrave Manor, with the scene where the characters move about the checkered floor of the great hall like chess pieces, then descend into a crypt set left over from Dracula. It’s also the one where Neill began consolidating his stock company: cementing Dennis Hoey firmly in place as Lestrade (a cop thick enough to make Nigel Bruce’s charmingly comic Dr. Watson look brilliant by comparison) and bringing back Gavin Muir, Gerald Hamer, Olaf Hytten, and other capable bit-players, including Mary Gordon as Mrs. Hudson.

   So we get the usual cast of sidelong-glancing suspects, beleaguered heroine, and the wrongly-accused nice-guy. There’s something else, though: the cast of suspects poking and sneaking about the gloomy corridors and secret passages includes some recuperating soldiers, obviously mentally disturbed by some trauma in combat, trying to keep a grip on sanity. Just how they were expected to recover in The Haunted Mansion is never made clear, (“Every house has a personality,” Holmes intones, “This one is positively ghoulish.”) but the film portrays these souls with surprising insight and compassion.

   And as such, this “B” picture may have been the first to address, however tangentially, the psychological problems of returning heroes — this at a time when most “A” war films were glossing over any unpleasantness.

   Or maybe not. Whatever the case, I shall remember a brief moment with a soldier afraid to open a pack of cigarettes in Sherlock Holmes Faces Death when I have forgotten much more “important” films and not missed them a bit.


REVIEWED BY WALTER ALBERT:


THE LADY IN THE MORGUE. Universal Pictures: A Crime Club Production, 1938. Preston Foster (Bill Crane), Patricia Ellis, Frank Jenks, Thomas Jackson, Gordon (Bill) Elliott), Roland Drew, Barbara Pepper. Based on the book by Jonathan Latimer. Director: Otis Garrett.

   I’ve never read the Crime Club novel by Jonathan Latimer on which this is based, but — according to the program notes — the film is less true to the novel than was the film version of Latimer’s The Westland Case.

   This sips along with zany ease [beginning with the disappearance of a girl’s body from the city morgue], and is notable for some inventive camera work by Stanley Cortez, who also filmed The Magnificent Ambersons and Night of the Hunter. It’s the kind of camera work that calls attention to itself (some of the visual scene transitions are as wild as the plot), but it seems perfectly matched to the narrative.

   Foster and Jenks are first-rate, and maybe the organizers will turn up the third Crime Club Bill Crane film (The Last Warning) for next year’s program. If The Last Warning is everywhere near as good as the first two, this would make a sensational laser disc set.

— Reprinted from Walter’s Place #108, July 1995.


REVIEWED BY WALTER ALBERT:


THERE’S THAT WOMAN AGAIN. Columbia, 1939. Melvyn Douglas, Virginia Bruce, Margaret Lindsay, Stanley Ridges. Director: Alexander Hall. Shown at Cinevent 27, Columbus OH, 1995.

   A followup to last year’s showing of There’s Always a Woman [reviewed by Steve here ], with Virginia Bruce replacing Joan Blondell as Sally Reardon, wife and would-be colleague of her husband Bill (melvyn Douglas) in his detective agency.

   Bruce, as far as I’m concerned, almost makes this unwatchable. She plays a ditzy blonde, with no compensating charm or cuteness. The mystery [concerning a series of robberies from a local jewelry store] is marginally interesting, but Bruce killed off any pleasure I might have taken in it.

— Reprinted from Walter’s Place #108, July 1995.


TOMORROW AT SEVEN. RKO Radio Pictures, 1933. Chester Morris, Vivienne Osborne, Frank McHugh, Allen Jenkins, Henry Stephenson, Grant Mitchell. Director: Ray Enright.

   This one comes straight from the pulp magazines. I should know. I’ve read enough of them. Looking for some background for his next book, a mystery writer named Neil Broderick (Chester Morris) inveigles his way into the household of Thornton Drake (Henry Stephenson), a wealthy man who is said to know a lot about a mysterious killer nicknamed “The Black Ace.”

   The latter’s modus operandi is to send a warning the day before the victim is to die, in the form of course of a black ace of spades. Broderick manages to meet Drake by means of his secretary (Vivienne Osborne), but when Drake gets the black ace warning himself, off they all go to his manor house on a Louisiana plantation. And when I say “all” I mean Drake’s butler and two dimwitted Chicago cops who have maybe a half a brain between them.

   If you picked Frank McHugh and Allen Jenkins as the two cops just from the cast listing, you’d be right, and I’ll bet you’re not the only one. It is Drake’s butler who was murdered on the plane coming in, though, not Drake himself, and with only a limited number of suspects to choose from, it’s also not very difficult to figure out who the killer has to be.

   That’s not the point, though. This is half comedy and half a spooky old mansion mystery, not really a detective mystery, and depending on your tolerance for lowbrow comedy, the combination makes this an enjoyable if not very demanding film to watch. (If McHugh and Jenkins are the best that the Chicago Homicide Squad are able to offer, however, we really are in an alternate universe here.)


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