Mystery movies


REVIEWED BY WALTER ALBERT:


BLUE, WHITE AND PERFECT. 20th Century Fox, 1941. Lloyd Nolan (PI Michael Shayne), Mary Beth Hughes, Helene Reynolds, George Reeves, Steven Geray.Based on the character created by Brett Halliday. Director: Herbert I. Leeds. Shown at Cinevent 26, Columbus OH, May 1994.

   In addition to Chandu (reviewed here ), I was also looking forward to a film I remembered with great pleasure from ts original release, Blue, White and Perfect.

   Lloyd Nolan is a wise-cracking Michael Shayne hired to follow the trail of industrial diamonds hijacked from an aircraft factory. This crime comedy of international war-time intrigue finds him on a liner bound for Honolulu where he teams up with George Reeves (as “Juan Arturo O’Hara”), an FBI Investigator traveling incognito to continue the investigation. Shayne is a fast talker and situation improvisor, and Nolan is fine in this role, although the film was not as fleet of foot as I remembered it.

   After the convention as I was watching The Shadow in another film as he was on the point of drowning in a chamber filling with water, I recalled the scene in Blue where Nolan and Reeves are trapped in a baggage compartment by a bad guy. A similar ploy taken from the matinee chapter-play thriller, the room in which the walls are closing in was effective in Star Wars and demonstrates the continuing reliance of movies on their history.

   With delectable Mary Beth Hughes as Shayne’s long-suffering girl friend.

REVIEWED BY JONATHAN LEWIS:


TONY ROME. Twentieth Century Fox, 1967. Frank Sinatra, Jill St. John, Richard Conte, Gena Rowlands, Simon Oakland, Jeffrey Lynn, Lloyd Bochner. Screenplay: Richard L. Breen, based on the novel Miami Mayhem by Marvin H. Albert writing as Anthony Rome (Pocket, 1960). Director: Gordon Douglas.

   Tony Rome is sunshine noir at its best. Although the plot is somewhat (I suspect deliberately) muddled and convoluted, the film works extremely well in portraying a private investigator doing his best to maintain his own personal standard of decency in a corrupt society where outward appearances obscure deception and internal turmoil.

   Frank Sinatra portrays the titular Anthony “Tony” Rome, a former Miami cop who is now working as a PI. And like many private investigators portrayed in fiction and on screen, he’s very much a loner. Aside from his bookie and a police lieutenant still on the force (Richard Conte), Rome doesn’t seem to have many stable relationships in his life.

   But that’s not to say that he couldn’t socialize more if he really wanted to. Enter Ann Archer (Jill St. John), a flirtatious divorcee living in Miami Beach, who ends up providing Rome with extensive information about a gangster who may be responsible for the death of Ralph Turpin (Robert J. Wilke), his former partner.

   Rome meets Ann for the first time after doing a big favor for Turpin, now working in hotel security. He ends up taking a girl who passed out in a hotel room home to her father. As it turns out she’s the daughter of a wealthy construction magnate married to a woman (Gena Rowlands) who is guarding a deep secret about her previous marriage. And Ann Archer is at the house, having slept there the night before.

   If it sounds somewhat confused, that’s because in many ways it is. But confusing doesn’t mean that there isn’t any clarity in the movie. Because at root, Tony Rome isn’t about plot as it is about as character and atmosphere. The viewer goes along on a journey with Rome as he travels through a city and a society reeking with corruption, deception, and greed. He’s not a white knight as much as he is a flawed knight. one who is tasked with battling modern society’s proverbial dragons.

REVIEWED BY DAN STUMPF:


SECRETS OF THE FRENCH POLICE. RKO, 1932. Gwili Andre, Gregory Ratoff, Frank Morgan and John Warburton. Written by Samuel Ornitz and Robert Tasker from magazine stories by Ashton Wolfe. Director: A. Edward Sutherland

SECRETS OF SCOTLAND YARD. Republic, 1944. Edgar Barrier, Stephanie Bachelor, C. Aubrey Smith, Lionel Atwill, Martin Kosleck, John Abbott and Mary Gordon. Written by Denison Clift. Directed by George Blair.

   Two very different films, each lots of fun in its own way.

    French Police is a lavish Selznick production, with splendid sets, moody photography and lots of lurid pre-Code mischief as it weaves the tale of General Moloff (Gregory Ratoff) a Russo-Chinese criminal mastermind (you know the type) who schemes to abduct an innocent young flower girl (the lovely Gwili Andre) and pass her off as Princess Anastasia, using hypnosis and drugs.

   That would be plenty for any self-respecting super-villain, but Moloff goes the extra mile, murdering inconvenient witnesses and leaving notes written in the victim’s blood incriminating other inconvenient witnesses — and that’s just when he’s in a hurry; given time and leisure, he drains his victims’ blood, covers them with plaster, and displays them as statues in his sinister palace, guarded by malevolent Orientals and surrounded with death traps.

   In short, a villain who takes his arch-fiendishness seriously, with the sort of old world polish one just doesn’t find in scoundrels these days.

   All of this is off-set knowingly by Frank Morgan as a sharp police inspector who recruits the flower girl’s burglar-boyfriend (John Warburton) to penetrate Moloff’s fiendish lair and unhatch his diabolical plots. And though I’m not sure “unhatch” is actually a word, Morgan and Warburton underplay their parts beautifully (I particularly enjoyed the scene where Warburton explains to Morgan why he thinks the World owes him a living), adding a touch of cynicism to the theatrical goings-on that keeps it slightly — very slightly—grounded in reality amid the cliffhangers and killings.

   The result is a film that seems part pulp-magazine and part send-up of pulp magazines, and an immensely satisfying blend of both.


   Scotland Yard, on the other hand, is a cheap little thing from Republic, a studio that knew how to do cheap movies just right, with a better than usual cast for them.

   We start with the defeat of Germany in World War I, with the German High Command already plotting their next strike by planning to get a mole into the decoding unit of the British War Department. Fast-forward to 1939, and the decoding unit run by C. Aubrey Smith (he of the lantern jaw and eyebrows like blunt instruments) and staffed with familiar character actors. Edgar Barrier plays the star decoder, but they no sooner break the code than he’s found dead on the floor, with his work erased.

   So it seems that the Germans got their mole in place, and the question is, which one is it? And how to find out? Fortunately for the allied cause and the film’s title, Barrier has a twin brother who works for Scotland Yard, and he steps into the dead man’s shoes to find out.

   What follows is fifty agreeable minutes of cat-and-mouse, helped along considerably by a cast of suspects that includes Lionel Atwill, John Abbott and Martin Kosleck at his sinister best, the whole thing — punctuated by vigorous fist-fights in the Republic manner.

   But there are also some telling bits of atmosphere rare for Republic: fog-shrouded streets, country cottages, and even Mary Gordon on leave from Universal’s Sherlock Holmes series as a cheerful housekeeper. And perhaps best of all, a quiet moment in the decoding office as the staff solemnly listens to King George VI’s halting radio speech declaring war, and everyone stands at attention when the radio plays “God Save the King.”

   It’s one of those little touches that lifts Secrets of Scotland Yard out of the B-Movie rut, and, together with that quintessential movie cast, help to make it memorable.

REVIEWED BY WALTER ALBERT:


THERE’S ALWAYS A WOMAN. Columbia, 1938. Joan Blondell , Melvyn Douglas, Mary Astor, Frances Drake, Jerome Cowan, Robert Paige, Thurston Hall. Director: Alexander Hall.

CHANDU THE MAGICIAN. Fox Films, 1932. Edmund Lowe (Chandu/Frank Chandler), Irene Ware (Princess Nadji). Bela Lugosi (Roxor). Based on the radio serial of the same title. Cinematography by James (Wong) Howe. Art direction by Max Parker. Directors: William Cameron Menzies and Marcel Varnel.

   The high point of Monday morning’s screenings was There’s Always a Woman, starring Joan Blondell and Melvyn Douglas as a husband-and-wife team who split up professionally and then, separately, have a go of solving the murder of Mary Astor’s husband (played by Lester Mathews), Blondell’s scatterbrained zaniness proved to be a good match for Douglas’s more conventional detecting as an investigator for the D.A.


   My choice of top overall pick for the convention, however, would probably be Chandu the Magician. Edmund Lowe stars as Chandu, with Bela Lugosi, lithely clad in close-fitting black sweater and slacks, as Roxor, the “malignant” super-villain, ready to reduce humanity to an anarchic mob, which he would command as ruler of a (much-reduced) universe.

   Not for Roxor the imperial trappings of Ming the Merciless in the Flash Gordon serials. It’s power he wants, and it’s his burning ambition — along with his magnetic eyes — that makes Roxor a more menacing villain than Charles Middleton’s Ming.

SPECIAL AGENT K-7. C.C.Burr Productions / Puritan Pictures, 1936. Walter McGrail, Queenie Smith, Irving Pichel, Donald Reed, Willy Castello, Duncan Renaldo, Joy Hodges. Based on the radio series character created (or played) by George Zimmer. Director: Bernard B. Ray (as Raymond K. Johnson).

   The espionage adventure radio series referred to appeared on the NBC network between 1932 and 1934, as I understand it. This is a long time ago, and information is hard to come by when it comes to radio this old. No copies of any of the episodes are known to exist. This movie was made in 1936 or 1937, and another radio series came along in 1939, one called Secret Agent K-7 Returns.

   This second series was carried by CBS and starred Jay Jostyn, an actor best known by OTR fans for his long-running lead role in the program Mr. District Attorney. The second series of K-& adventures lasted for 78 episodes, many of which are generally available and in circulation. See The Digital Deli website for more details.

   Any resemblance between the movie and the second radio series is next to none. In the movie, agent K-7, by name “Lanny” Landers and played by Walter McGrail, is not a spy of any kind, but an undercover agent for the FBI. Home from abroad, he’s asked to help crack down on organized crime in a city filled with hoodlums, gamblers and gangsters of all sorts.

   Most of the activity in the film takes place in and around a nightclub owned by Eddie Geller, who has just been the beneficiary of a hung jury. When he is killed in his office, it is the fiancé of reporter Olive O’Day (Queenie Smith) who is the primary suspect. She, of course, asks Landers for help.

   The detective story that follows is a complicated one, with lots of suspects and false trails, as many as can be squeezed into a cramped 70 minutes worth of running time, which also includes a song by one Joy Hodges, later known for helping Ronald Reagan launch his acting career. The killer is obvious, though, from the very first moment he appears on the screen, taking the sheen off most of what follows. There are glimpses of what otherwise could have been, but “could have been” never counts for very much.

REVIEWED BY DAVID VINEYARD:


THE UNSEEN. Paramount Pictures, 1944. Joel McCrea, Gail Russell, Herbert Marshall. Screenplay by Hagar Wilde and Raymond Chandler, based on the novel by Ethel Lina White. Directed by Lewis Allen.

   The sum total of this film adds up to much more than the film itself does.

   To begin with, it is the follow-up to director Lewis Allen’s major surprise hit, the classic ghost story, The Uninvited (reviewed here ), even down to casting perpetual lost waif Gail Russell as the heroine, here a governess in one of those mysterious households dear to the Gothic formula ever since Jane Eyre.

   Then there is the screenplay co-written by none other than Raymond Chandler and based on a novel by Ethel Lina White, who among others wrote the novels which Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes and Siodmak’s The Spiral Staircase were based on.

   Then too, there is a cast lead by Joel McCrea and Herbert Marshall, along with such steadfast character actors such as Norman Lloyd and Tom Tully. Even the children playing McCrea’s daughter and wayward son are good actors.

   The plot is that an old dark abandoned mansion sits next to McCrea’s in the city. McCrea once worked for the late owner, known as the Commodore. Deserted now, McCrea’s children insist they see mysterious lights in the house but no one believes them.

   As the film opens, the children spy an old woman walking by the house one night. She sees lights and a figure in the house, and is chased down by the figure. The next day headlines reveal an old woman was killed in an alley nearby. Meanwhile McCrea’s son finds the old lady’s gold watch outside the old house and conceals it so the police don’t know the connection.

   Governess Gail Russell arrives to the cold McCrea household where he questions her qualifications and motives and tells her his children are impossible. McCrea is bitter over his wife’s death and the suspicion that hangs over him because of it, as his close friend, doctor Herbert Marshall explains.

   Add to the mix the conniving ex-governess who has an almost hypnotic hold on the boy and the Commodore’s nosy widow (or is she), plus a few red herrings, and you should have the makings of at least a competent little Gothic outing.

   Alas, not so. The Unseen is flat, unconvincing, indifferently acted and directed, and the screenplay has little to say that will hold much interest. The motive for all the goings on is absurd, and the finale unconvincing as the sudden romance between McCrea and Russell.

   It is currently available on YouTube in six parts in a rather poor print. Unless you are a completest or a Masochist, I suggest you leave it there.

REVIEWED BY DAVID VINEYARD:


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.

REVIEWED BY DAN STUMPF:


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.

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