Mystery movies

DEATH FLIES EAST. Columbia Pictures, 1935. Conrad Nagel, Florence Rice, Raymond Walburn, Geneva Mitchell, Robert Allen, Oscar Apfel, Miki Morita. Based on a story by Philip Wylie (American Magazine, July 1934). Director: Phil Rosen.

   A neat if not overly sophisticated murder mystery that takes place on an airplane heading for New York City from California. Dead is a police detective, found slumped in his seat, poisoned. Most of the passengers appear to be ordinary businessmen, plus one deaf woman who is on board primary for comic relief — she can’t hear a word anyone says.

   But also on board is Evelyn Vail (Florence Rice), a nurse and a recent parolee from prison — convicted of complicity in another poisoning case. But she has a definite reason for being on the plane: a convict on death row at Sing Sing can confess to the killing, if only she can get there in time.

   More. A gentle suave gentleman (Conrad Nagel) who sits across the aisle from her and assist her is taking a secret formula to Washington, and he takes the small briefcase he is carrying it in everywhere he goes.

   Everyone appears innocent enough until the murder occurs. Then everyone begins to look suspicious, thanks to some decent writing and even better camera work. A minor film, but an enjoyable one. I only wish I had a better copy, but who restores old, unknown movies like this one?

Reviewed by DAVID VINEYARD:          

DIXIE RAY HOLLYWOOD STAR Coventry Productions, 1983. Also released in an R-rated version by Lima Productions as It’s Called Murder, Baby. John Leslie, Lisa de Leeuw, Juliet Anderson, Veronica Hart, Kelly Nicholls, Chris Warfield, Steve Marlow. Guest appearances: Cameron Mitchell and Tom Reece. Screenplay: Dean Rogers. Director: Anhony Spinelli.

   A man walks up a narrow flight of stairs in an older building. He walks down a long corridor and enters an office. We see shadows against a cloudy window, a man and a woman. There is shouting and a shot rings out.

   Cut to the door. Nick Popolopolis Private Investigations is painted on the door. Inside in the shadow behind his desk is the man (John Leslie) we saw earlier. He is seen only in the shadows of the blinds on the window and the cigarette he lights. Two more men enter and he turns on the lights.

   They are the Lieutenant, plain clothes cop Cameron Mitchell and his partner Tom Reece. The dialogue establishes it is the 1940‘s. Guadalcanal has just fallen, they tell Nick, who Mitchell calls The Greek. Nick has other problems. the Lt. picks up Nick’s gun and smells the barrel. He passes it to Reece who does the same. “You been playing with it?” Mitchell asks.

   Nick nods toward a dark corner and for the first time we and Mitchell and Reece see the body of a woman.

   This could be almost any noirish private eye tale set in the forties, it has the atmosphere, the look, even the music is right.

   It’s not just any noir tale of a cynical private eye. John Leslie is a major adult film star of the era, and this film is hard core pornography. Not R, not NR, not NC17. Dixie Ray Hollywood Star is triple XXX hard core porn.

   It is also a surprisingly effective noirish private eye tale told in flashback by a wisecracking world-weary private eye with a streak of conscience that just won’t let him turn his back on murder.

   The corpse is Adrian (Juliet Anderson) who showed up earlier in the day at Nick’s office. Her friend and employer as well as lesbian lover is one-time big movie star Dixie Ray (Lisa de Leeuw, a busty star with flame red hair), who married and lives now at a beach side mansion with her grown daughter.

   Leslie’s Nick is the usual eye of the era, but with a touch of something more. He’s randy and seduces every woman he meets, but he has half a heart and soul. He wishes he was fighting the war and not playing at private eye. He wishes he was in the furniture business and not a detective. Of course he’s not so guilty he doesn’t sleep with his secretary Sherry (Veronica Hart) who is leaving him to be closer to her husband’s army camp.

   Dixie Ray’s husband, Charles Barkley (Chris Warfield) owed money and paid off with nude pictures of his wife. She got them back with the help of illegal casino owner Tony LaMarr (Steve Marlow), but now someone still has prints they are blackmailing her for. She doesn’t have the money and she wants the pictures back.

   Nick eventually unravels the truth, but he knows it is futile. This is Hollywood, and money will buy a friendly verdict and murder will go unpunished.

Lieutenant: Relax Nick, you aren’t going to save the world.

Nick: Somebody has to. Maybe its me. Nobody else gives a damn.

Lieutenant: You weren’t listening, Nick. Some of us do.

Nick: Yeah, I know.

   The Lieutenant and his partner leave to make their arrest, and Nick stays behind to wait for the meat wagon to carry away Anderson’s body.

Nick to Reece: Say, you say we took Guadalcanal?

Reece: Yeah.

Nick: Wish I was with them.

Reece: Me too. [pause] See ya around, Nick. See ya at the movies.

   Yes, this is porn, it is explicit every other scene hard core porn. But it is also a good little mystery. A solid little noir outing with John Leslie giving a bravura performance as Nick Popodopolis. The sets and the few exteriors and classic cars are all perfect, the clothes right, and anachronisms are studiously avoided.

   No one had to put this much effort into this film. A string of barely cogent scenes and the usual bad acting and worse dialogue would have been enough. Porn chic was dead and video was about to deteriorate what originality the genre had earlier.

   But they did make this. And it is far better than what it is. You could easily cut the sex scenes and have a short but very good little noir private eye outing. No matter what else you come away with here you will be impressed with Leslie as Popodopolis.

   He was always one of the genre’s better actors, but here he is so much more. He may not be Bogart or Dick Powell, but I’ve seen much worse eyes in legitimate films, and in Nick Popodopolis he creates a very real private eye who wouldn’t have to be embarrassed to be in the company of Sam Spade, Philip Malowe, or Mike Hammer.

Reviewed by MIKE TOONEY:

SHERLOCK, JR. Buster Keaton Productions, 1924, 45 minutes. Buster Keaton, Kathryn McGuire, Joe Keaton, Erwin Connelly, Ward Crane. Writers: Clyde Bruckman, Jean C. Havez, Joe Mitchell. Director: Buster Keaton.

   For silent film aficionados Charlie Chaplin is the ne plus ultra of comedians. Certainly Chaplin had a wide emotional range which he was able to exploit at every turn; with him, slapstick humor and pathos — if not bathos — could be only a few frames apart. There is no denying Charlie Chaplin’s talent.

   For this silent film enthusiast, however, Buster Keaton is still my favorite comedian of the era. No knock against Chaplin, but there is something irreducibly American about Keaton, especially in his boundless enthusiasm and unquenchable energy in accomplishing his goals. If a situation seemed hopeless, Keaton would simply redouble his efforts and win out in the end — no defeatism for Buster. For him, the most intractable problems would always involve women in some way — and thus has it ever been with men.

   Buster Keaton didn’t have that wide emotional range that Chaplin possessed, but he didn’t really need it. In fact, he eschewed facial emotions, leading to his nickname “The Great Stone Face.” Keeping a dead pan regardless of the situation, Buster was still able to convey exactly what he should be feeling at any given moment. Now that’s talent!

    Sherlock, Jr. is one of Keaton’s best efforts. In it he plays a film projector operator whose dreams mirror his real-life anxieties, so you shouldn’t think that the movie is simply a shallow comedy. As Dan Callahan writes:

    “With Sherlock Jr, he [Keaton] came up with a haunting little meditation on movies and dreams. Projectionist Buster falls asleep at the controls and dreams that he can enter the film he is unreeling. With a series of ingenious visual effects, Keaton gives us a perfect demonstration of what it would be like to climb up onto a screen and become a part of the movie we are watching. It’s an unforgettable scene. Without self-consciousness, Keaton brings home the wondrousness of the medium itself, submerging himself in the ocean of its superb and liquid unreality. When he steps onto the screen, he fulfills something in all of us.”

   It is within this framework of fantasy that Buster acts out some of his most inventive visual gags — falling in and out of the dream world of the film-within-a-film, pretending to be the suave supersleuth (more like James Bond, in fact) who nearly gets it from an explosive billiard ball, diving through a window in a tuxedo and coming up from the ground inside a woman’s dress, diving headfirst yet again through — yes, through — another human being, an exquisitely-timed descent hanging from a railroad crossing gate into a moving car (if you can, run that sequence in slow motion), a gag involving Buster all alone on a bicycle’s handle bars approaching a train that’s just about to pass a trestle, and another stunt in which he falls from a moving train (and during which, he learned years later, he actually broke his neck). It seems that one of Buster’s favorite gag props was trains; he also used them to good effect in The General.

   No two ways about it: Buster Keaton was a comic film genius.

Reviewed by DAN STUMPF:         

DOROTHY B. HUGHES – In a Lonely Place. Duell Sloan & Pearce, hardcover, 1947. Pocket #587, paperback, 1949; Bantam, paperback, 1979; Carroll & Graf, paperback, 1984. Feminist Press, softcover, 2003.

IN A LONELY PLACE. Columbia, 1950. Humphrey Bogart, Gloria Grahame, Frank Lovejoy, Jeff Donnell, Martha Stewart (no, not that Martha Stewart), Robert Warwick. Screenplay by Andrew Solt and Edmund H. North, based on the novel by Dorothy B. Hughes. Directed by Nicholas Ray.

   A terse, gripping and effectively-written novel, but perhaps too well done to be much fun. The story is told from the third-person POV of Dixon Steele, a would-be gentleman of leisure living off the generosity and gullibility of friends and relatives who think he’s working on a novel. Steele is a confirmed misogynist, but to be fair, he’s also a misanthrope with a dim view of his fellow men and the society that demands he work for a living.

   It’s hard to stick with a character like this very long, but Hughes does an excellent job of trapping us in his psyche, revealing little by little just how sick and self-absorbed he is. Meanwhile we see him hooking up with an old war buddy who is now an L. A. police detective and romancing a neighbor lady, Laurel Gray. We also learn that there has been series of stranglings in the area — and Dix is the killer.

   The killings are neatly conveyed, with Hughes telling us just enough about each one to impart a sense of brutality and horror without getting unpleasantly graphic. But it’s the characterizations that make the story work, not only Steele’s but also his cop-buddy, the buddy’s wife, and especially the neighbor-lady; Laurel Gray is a perfectly-realized character: intelligent, independent and just bitchy enough to seem real.

   And if the book as a whole left me a bit down and creepy-feeling, I still have to say it was wonderfully done, as we watch Steele’s hunter/hunted game with women (hunter) and the Law (hunted) draw to an end we knew was coming but couldn’t look away from.

   In 1950 Columbia took the title and the character names and made a film out of them, discarding most of the rest. And a damnfine film they made, too, though lovers of the book must have been somewhat dazed and confused by it.

   Here, Dixon Steele is a conscientious Hollywood screenwriter who hasn’t had a hit since before the war, in a town where you’re only as good as your last movie. He’s also subject to what we might nowadays call PTSD, prone to heavy drinking and fits of violence. Given a chance to adapt a trashy best-seller for the movies, he finds a hat-check girl who has read and loved it (“It’s what I call a epic!”) and takes her to his apartment to tell him the story so he won’t have to read it.

   Thus when she turns up strangled the next day, he’s the logical suspect. He’s tentatively cleared by the luscious neighbor-lady (Gloria Grahame in one of her best roles ever) but as they begin a relationship, she’s nagged by suspicions that he may be the killer after all — an opinion shared by the LAPD.

   So you’ve got the characters, the locale and a strangling carried over from the book, but that’s about it. In fact there’s an eerie echo-chamber effect in a movie that has nothing to do with the book it’s based on, where the main character writes a screenplay that has nothing to do with the book he’s supposedly adapting. Unintentional no doubt, but it still packs a certain resonance.

   And that’s about it for the film too, as we get as rather uneventful hour or so of Laurel and Dix falling in love, Dix throwing getting more violent, Laurel growing afraid and the cops getting more suspicious. No chases, tense walks in the fog or suspenseful cat-and-mouse, but it does convey a sense of edgy melancholy that evokes Hollywood wonderfully.

   Nicholas Ray’s fine eye for setting a scene and his fluid camera literally keep things moving, and the leisurely pace left me totally unprepared for a fast and unforgettable climax unlike any other. In a Lonely Place could be a lot slower and twice as long, and it’d still be worth sitting through just for the wrap-up.

   By the way, you can read a lot of gossipy trivia about the making of this film — director Ray and star Grahame were married when the movie started filming, but not when it finished — but my favorite bit involves Robert Warwick playing a faded, boozy has-been actor. Warwick himself was a star of the silent films and on Broadway, where, at the height of his fame, he took time to encourage a struggling and not-very-good young actor named Humphrey Bogart. Bogart never forgot his kindness and repaid him with this small but juicy part.

CURTAIN AT EIGHT. Majestic Pictures, 1933. C. Aubrey Smith, Dorothy Mackaill, Paul Cavanagh, Sam Hardy, Marion Shilling, Russell Hopton, Natalie Moorhead, Hale Hamilton, Ruthelma Stevens. Screenplay: Edward T. Lowe. Director: E. Mason Hopper.

   This rather wretched murder mystery movie has only one thing going for it: C. Aubrey Smith in a rather unusual role for him, that of Jim Hanvey, the detective character created by Octavus Roy Cohen. Although the credits don’t mention it, but Curtain at Eight, the movie, was based on Cohen’s book The Backstage Mystery (Appleton, 1930), and what the resemblance is, I’d like to say slim to none.

   Unless, that is, there is a monkey in the book — or rather a chimp — although none of the characters in the movie know the difference. If you cant stand chimps in movies any more than I can, avoid this film. I stuck it out, though, so I can’t follow my own advice, then why should you?

   Murdered on the stage as they are celebrating his birthday is actor and notorious womanizer Wylie Thornton (Paul Cavanagh) — one of those scenes when the lights go off and wouldn’t you know it, a shot rings out. There are more than the usual number of suspects, and before the movie is over, the dopey homicide detective on the case (Sam Hardy) has locked up almost all of them, along with another one who simply wanders in at about the two-thirds mark.

   Thankfully also on the case is Jim Hanvey, played by Aubrey Smith as a tall, lanky, homespun (aw, shucks) sort of guy, with a shank of unruly hair — a far cry from Smith’s usual role as a British officer and a gentleman. His portrayal of Hanvey is also a far cry from that of Guy Kibbee, who was the star of Jim Hanvey, Detective (Republic, 1937). To me, Kibbee sounds as though he’s be more appropriate as the character, as Kevin Burton Smith describes him on his Thrilling Detective website: “…full-time good ol’ boy. He’s fat, slow-moving, [with] fishy eyes…”

   Besides the chimp, Curtain at Eight is plagued by a script that could have used a lot more time to stretch out and introduce the real players in the story, not the chimp and not the dopey guy from homicide. Between the two, the two must take up half of the movie’s sixty minutes running time, or did it only seem that way?

   I’ll bet bits and pieces of the movie came from the book, picked up from here and there and strung together in some hope of a coherent mystery plot, and not succeeding. Maybe even the chimp came from the book, but I hope not.

   As for director E. Mason Hopper, he had a long career making silent films, but he made only one more with sound, the truly abysmal Hong Kong Nights (First Division Pictures, 1935), a spy film in which one of the major stars, the hero’s good buddy and constant sidekick, simply disappears half way through the movie, never to be seen or mentioned again. I watched it a short while ago, and I’m almost embarrassed to say that I did.

   The screenwriter, though, Edward T. Lowe, went to much better things, including worthwhile entries in the Charlie Chan, Bulldog Drummond, and Sherlock Holmes series, not to mention a couple of Universal horror movies in the mid-1940s.

Note:   For Dan Stumpf’s comments on this same film, which I didn’t read again until just now myself, go here. We clearly watched the same movie, but he seems to have found more charm in it than I did.

Reviewed by JONATHAN LEWIS:         

FOUR FLIES ON GREY VELVET. Marianne Productions / Seda Spettacoli, Italy, 1971; original title: Quattro Mosche di Velluto Grigio. Paramount Pictures, US, 1972. Michael Brandon, Mimsy Farmer, Jean-Pierre Marielle, Bud Spencer, Screenwriter-director:: Dario Argento.

   Dario Argento’s giallo film, Four Flies on Grey Velvet, is one strange cinematic experience, one best appreciated after midnight. Alternately creepy and surprisingly funny, the movie stars two American actors, Michael Brandon and cult favorite Mimsy Farmer, as a married Italian couple inexplicably plunged into a nightmarish world of murder and paranoia.

   The movie has both dark humor and a psychedelic, dreamlike quality buttressed by an early 1970s rock soundtrack. It’s as if Hitchcock, Pink Floyd, and an experimental theater company decided to make a thriller.

   The movie wastes little time getting right into the heart of the action. Roberto Tobias (Brandon) is a rock musician who finds himself being followed by a strange man. In an unsettling sequence, Tobias ends confronting the man, killing the lurker with a switchblade knife. Soon after, Tobias and his wife, Nina (Farmer), begin to receive threatening notes in the “I know you killed a man, Roberto,” variety.

   But if it’s not money the anonymous stalker wants, then what is it? And why? And what the hell do four flies to do to with it? I’m not going to give away any spoilers, but let me just say this: those little flies are the big elephants in the room. In the end, it doesn’t make all that much sense. But the journey’s the fun part.

   Look for both John-Pierre Marielle in a captivating and comedic portrayal as a down-on-his-luck, flamboyantly gay private investigator and for Bud Spencer as one of Roberto’s friends.

Reviewed by DAN STUMPF:         

UP IN THE AIR. Monogram, 1940. Frankie Darro, Mantan Moreland, Tristram Coffin, Marjorie Reynolds, Lorna Gray. Written by Edmond Kelso. Directed by Howard Bretherton.

   A painless if uninspiring hour-killer from Monogram, with the pleasure of watching Marjorie Reynolds and especially Lorna (“Vultura”) Gray, plus the always-entertaining Mantan Moreland.

   The story revolves around murder(s) at a radio station, and when I say “revolves” you should appreciate that the narrative spins its wheels quite a lot but never actually seems to get too far. Alluring Lorna Gray plays a bitchy singer who is, alas, the first to go. A couple of loud and none-too-bright cops show up to investigate, but the real sleuthing is done by the team of Frankie Darro and Mantan Moreland.

   The word “team” is key to the interest and charm of this movie and the others in this low-budget series, where Frankie and Mantan took turns playing unskilled workers in crappy jobs that invariably got them mixed up in murder. Mantan was always the reluctant throttle to Frankie’s racing engine, but it was he who provided the laughs and charm with his snappy patter, comic timing and — in this film anyway — snappy one-man dance numbers.

   The concept of interracial-but-equal crime-solvers may have broken some cultural ground back then, but it didn’t catch on; Monogram was a never a trend-setting studio after all, generally content to pick up on well-worn themes and discarded series from the major studios, like Cisco Kid and Charlie Chan, where Moreland again showed up to good advantage.

   But it’s interesting to note that they trotted it out decades before Culp & Cosby in I Spy when nobody was looking. I’m not saying they did particularly well with it, but the film passes painlessly as I say, and the interplay between Moreland and Darro is often fun to watch, especially when they trot out one of Mantan’s “infinite talk” routines.

   To anyone interested in learning more about this ought-to-be-legendary black comedian, I recommend Michael H. Price’s Mantan the Funny Man (Midnight Marquee Press, 2007). It’s written by an old white guy, but offers some worthwhile insights into race relations in the middle of the last century, and it takes a close and appreciative look at movies most critics wouldn’t give the time of day to.

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