Mystery movies


REVIEWED BY DAVID VINEYARD:

   

THE SPIDER. Fox Film Corp., 1931. Edmond Lowe, Lola Moran, El Brendel, John Arledge, George E. Stone, Earl Foxe. Screenplay Barry Conners, Phlip Klein, & Leon Gordon, Albert Lewis, based on a play by Fulton Oursler & Lowell Bretano. Directed by Kenneth MacKenna &William Cameron Menzies.

   Murder in the theater, with Edmond Lowe as Chatrand, the magician sleuth who has to use all his stage skills to clear the name of his young assistant Tommy (John Arledge) when a member of the audience is shot while Chatrand and Tommy are on stage doing their mentalist act.

   Despite being based on a play by Fulton Oursler (Anthony Abbott of the Thatcher Colt mysteries) there isn’t much mystery to this film whose chief interests are Lowe as the fast thinking magician sleuth and the sets and magic acts designed by co-director William Cameron Menzies.

   Menzies, who directed Lowe in the excellent Chandu the Magician (1932), along with a third magic film, Trick or Treat [reviewed by Walter Albert here ] pulls out all the stops for the magic acts and sets, which along with Lowe are the chief interests in this pedestrian mystery.

   The basis for the plot is that Chatrand’s assistant Tommy has amnesia, but hopes having returned to the last place he remembers a face in the audience will awaken his memory during the mentalist act he does with the magician.

   Meanwhile Beverly Lane (Moran) thinks Tommy may be her lost brother and is accompanied by her uncle, John Carrington (Earl Foxe) whose cruelty caused Tommy’s amnesia and has every reason to keep him from returning.

   Sure enough, a shot rings out during the performance just as Tommy spies his uncle, and Carrington is killed in the front row. The police arrive, close the theater, and plan to arrest Tommy, but Chatrand hopes to awaken Tommy’s memory enough to identify the real killer and plays fast and loose buying time so he can stage one last act with Beverly’s help.

   El Brendel is the thoroughly disposable comedy relief which I suggest you fast forward through. He was never funny (he fared somewhat better as a director), and here, teamed with a smart aleck child, it’s not hard to wish the bullet fired into the audience had claimed two other victims. Every scene with him is a complete waste of time.

   But as I said, the real stars here are the sets and the magic acts designed by Menzies. Those and Lowe’s fast thinking magician are the best thing about the film, but the visuals are worth the price of admission at a fast fifty nine minutes. It’s just a shame they couldn’t wrap a better plot around them.

   

REVIEWED BY DAVID VINEYARD:

   

HAMMER THE TOFF.  Butcher’s Film Service, UK, 1952.  John Bentley, Patricia Dainton, Valentine Dyall, John Robinson, Roddy Hughes, Wally Patch. Screenplay John Creasey, based on his novel.  Directed by Maclean Rogers.

   An elegant top-hatted figure in white tie and tails, sporting a long cigarette holder, walks out of a West End club and is silhouetted against a wall, introducing us to the titles, and to the Honorable Richard Rollinson, aka the Toff.

   This once “lost” film is currently available on Amazon Prime.

   In this case the Toff is played by popular British leading man John Bentley (Calling Paul Temple) whose career in the late forties, fifties, and sixties spanned British film and television, often as not in crime films.

   It’s just about perfect casting too, with Bentley managing to be suave, tough, smart, romantic, and all with an appropriately light touch in this extremely faithful adaptation of the John Creasey novel that manages to pack just about everything and everyone in from the popular book series (alas, no Aunt Gloria).

   For anyone who came in late, the Toff, Richard Rollinson, is a well-born amateur crime fighter well connected at Scotland Yard with his friend Inspector Grice (Valentine Dyall) and in London’s criminal East End with pub owner and ex-prize fighter Bill (here Bert) Ebbuts (Wally Patch). Aided by his valet and invaluable man Jolly (Roddy Hughes) Rollinson, known as Rolly to his friends, cruises on the sunny side of the law but only just, leaving behind his calling card, a caricature of a man in top hat, monocle, and smoking a cigarette in a long holder.

   Hammer the Toff was Bentley’s second outing as the Toff, Salute the Toff coming earlier (1951), and turns out to be a fast-paced and well done B level thriller from the reliable Maclean Rogers.

   As in the Creasey novel, we are plunged right in when Rolly, on holiday, enters a compartment on a speeding train occupied by beautiful Susan Lancaster (Patricia Dainton) just moments before two men on a waiting hill side fire into the compartment as the train passes.

   Without much ado we discover Susan Lancaster’s uncle (Ian Fleming, who was the intended victim on the train) has a formula wanted by a criminal who calls himself the Hammer. In typical style the Toff foils two Spaniards who try to rifle Susan’s hotel room, and throws himself full into the investigation, but the next day when her uncle is murdered in front of him and Susan in a crowd all seems lost.

   From his friend Grice, Rolly learns that the Hammer was a Robin Hood type well loved in the East End who suddenly a few months earlier committed a murder and has since turned deadly. He wants the formula, which Susan has no idea where it may be, and will stop at nothing to get it.

   Rolly, being Rolly, takes Susan into his and Jolly’s protection after thwarting an attempt to kill Susan with a poisoned syringe in a brief case, and at Grice’s request heads for the East End to try and use his connections there to get a hand on the Hammer.

   What he finds surprises him, because the East Enders insist the Hammer is innocent, a Robin Hood above suspicion (a nod surely to fellow Thriller alumni Leslie Charteris and the Saint in his early outlaw days), and when Rolly arranges to meet with him he is impressed with the man named Linnett (John Robinson) who swears he is being impersonated, but determined to uncover the fake Hammer and mete out his own justice.

   Unfortunately before Rolly can finish feeling Linnett out the police arrive and Rolly finds himself unjustly hated by his East End friends for having betrayed the Hammer.

   From then on the film races to the finish, with mysterious messages hidden in plain sight, evil minions, angry former allies in the East End, the fake (or is he?) Hammer, and an uncomfortable truce between the Toff and the (real?) Hammer.

   Hammer the Toff is a fast moving B, well written (credit to Creasey for getting so much of the book into a 71 minute format without being crowded), attractively played, well directed by an old pro, and obviously with some expense in terms of sets and location photography. Among other small favors they get the Toff’s flat almost exactly as I imagined it in the books, right down to the entrance and his collection of trophies, a nice touch for any film based on a popular series of books.

   If you like the Toff, Creasey, and British B thrillers in general, this is an attractive and well done entry in a series that sadly didn’t go anywhere.

   Truth is, the Toff just didn’t fare very well outside of The Thriller and books. In addition to the two films the Toff appeared in several black and white comic digests in the Super Detective Library, and two BBC radio serials (“The Toff and the Runaway Bride” and “The Toff on the Farm”). It wasn’t until the mid-1960s and the Pyramid paperback reprints here that he even had an American imprint, though the Baron had appeared early on.

   The television version of this book was just an episode of Patricia Dainton Presents from 1958 edited from this film.

   But for long time fans like me, this is a delightful chance to see Creasey’s creation in action, with John Bentley just about perfect as the Toff we know and love. He’s the face I will associate with the character from now on, and that is a compliment.

   

ANOTHER MAN’S POISON. Eros Films, UK, 1951. United Artists, US, 1952. Bette Davis, Gary Merrill, Emlyn Williams, Anthony, Barbara Murray. Screenplay by Val Guest, based on the play “Deadlock” by Leslie Sands. Director: Irving Rapper.

   There is a funny story I’d like to tell you about regarding this movie. Well, it’s funny to me, not laugh-out-loud funny, but just a little bizarre kind of funny. The first time I tried to watch this movie, it was on a videotape I’d made fro TCM, and about ten minutes from the end, either the movie had run long, or the tape had run short. What can be worse than missing the last ten minutes of a rattling good murder mystery movie?

   Then a couple of nights ago, I spotted the movie again on Amazon Prime Video, a freebie, no less. Finally, I thought, here’s my chance to see the ending. And of course I decided to watch it all the way through from the beginning. It had been too long. I’d forgotten most of the story line.

   So I settled in for the evening. Ha! You guessed it. Ten minutes before the ending, the picture froze. I had to shut everything down and work my way back to where I’d left off. Took me fifteen minutes. Twice now.

   Three times is the charm.

   I might not have done this for just any old movie, but to my mind, this one’s a good one, and well worth the trouble. Bette Davis can do little wrong, as far as I’m concerned, and she’s at her bitchy best in this one. .(There’s no other word I can use.)

   I don’t recall if the story begins on a dark rainy night or not – but for sure that comes later. She’s a mystery writer who lives almost alone in an well-isolated manor house with a deep dark tarn in the back and facing an empty stretch of moor on the other. She has two visitors. The first is her estranged husband, then after she disposes of him, another man shows up – her husband’s partner in a bank robbery, looking for shelter.

   When I said disposed of, I meant it. The man is dead. Poisoned. Her second arrival grabs the chance when he can get it. He dumps the body in the tarn, and forces the newly minted widow to let him pose as her husband.

   It’s an audacious plot, and they might have gotten away with it, if not for a live-in secretary, her fiancé (who the lady in charge has Bette Davis eyes) for, and an extremely nosy veterinarian who lives in the estate next door.

   I apologize for running on like this, but this is just the setup. You’ll have to use your imagination for what goes on in the remaining hour or so, but with a setup like this, the possibilities are many, and it all comes off like clockwork. Well worth the long intermission(s) for me.

   

REVIEWED BY DAVID VINEYARD:

THE TIGER WOMAN. Republic Pictures. 1945.  Adele Mara, Kane Richmond, Cy Kendall, Richard Fraser, Peggy Stewart, Gregory Gaye (billed here as Gay). Screenplay by George Carlton Brown., based on a play by John Dunkel. Directed by Philip Ford.

   Here is a surprisingly solid B movie from Republic that more than makes up for any flaws with attractive leads in a minor noirish if not quite true noir mode (it’s less noir than damn good hard-boiled pulp) about a tough smart private detective, a beautiful femme fatale of the most fatal kind, and two murders going on three she almost gets away with (not counting framing an innocent for her crimes).

   The private detective in the case is Jerry Devery (Kane Richmond) who only wants to leave on his annual fishing trip but who has an appointment with Sharon Winslow (Adele Mara) chanteuse at the Tiger Club, owned by her husband. Seems her husband borrowed some money from gambler/gangster Joe Sapphire (Gregory Gaye in a nice turn as a suave charming but reluctantly lethal crook) and Joe is threatening to get a little rough.

   Devery gets a friendly greeting from Joe though. He’s done Joe a few favors, mostly legal or at least only skirting the law, and Joe is a convivial type willing to help an old friend. In any case laying off Winslow is no trick because Joe assures Devery Winslow paid up only that morning.

   But when Winslow turns up dead, Devery’s little talk with Joe suddenly puts Joe in the hot seat, something Joe isn’t happy about,.  And who is the mysterious young woman hanging about the Tiger Club who was seen arguing with Winslow and what does she know?

   Devery’s friend Inspector Henry Leggett (Cy Kendall) knows Devery will eventually find out who-dunnit, if he survives Joe Sapphire, the mysterious young woman who is fast becoming a suspect (Peggy Stewart), and of course the lady of the title the very lethal Adele Mara.

   To be honest, there is no need for Spoilers here because there is no real mystery. We know Mara killed her husband and is having an affair with his partner Steven Mason (Richard Fraser).  The only question is will Devery put it together in time, because when Sapphire is cleared after taking Devery and the mystery girl (who turns out of be Winslow’s daughter by an earlier marriage) on a ride the chief suspects are Mason and the girl.

   Then when Mara conveniently pushes Mason from an upper office window as he starts to get cold feet about framing the girl,the evidence all seems to point to Phyllis Carrington (Stewart) and the police have no choice but to arrest her.

   Leaving Devery only one chance, to seduce Mara into taking a trip with him, ostensibly his delayed fishing trip, get her on a train, lower her guard, and get her to confess to the two murders when she tries to kill him.

   Yup, it even has murder, attempted anyway, on a train.

   And I appreciated Devery isn’t attracted to or interested in Stewart’s younger woman. He knows she is innocent and intends to protect her, but Mara is much more his type and he knows it. It’s a nice touch since it would have been so easy to have him fall for Stewart and be a bit more sympathetic, but instead he stays in character.

   Granted that isn’t the most original plot ever, or even the smartest one, but I judge a movie by its ability to pull off that sort of thing so that you don’t think about it during the film and let it ruin things, and on that level the movie succeeds. You want to see what happens on the train between Richmond and Mara, and it may shock you that it is worth watching however contrived.

   It even makes sense, because clever and lethal as Mara’s character is, she is also impulsive, driven by her passion, and like every great femme fatale overly confident of her ability to get what she wants with her body and brains from anything in pants. She is a Tiger Woman, with the strengths that suggests, but also the weaknesses.

   Okay, it’s minor Sam Spade and Bridget or Philip Marlowe and Velma, but for a moderate budget Republic mystery it actually works very well. Among its virtues are that it is shot well, using shadows and darkness well to add mood. It is fairly sharply written, with Richmond’s cynical private eye entirely believable {Richmond is still Richmond, at best an attractive leading man if a bit cardboard, but at least here the cardboard is a bit better made than usual), his relationship with Kendall’s cop played for laughs but never as a dumb cop joke, and everyone’s motives are explained and make sense. At least the kind of sense that real life sometimes makes only the people aren’t half so attractive and the dialogue half as good.

   Of course what really makes this film work is the performance at its center by Adele Mara. Her Sharon Winslow is very much a prowling tiger killing whenever it feels threatened, ruthless, heartless, and at the same time beautiful and desirable. Mara’s Sharon Winslow may not stand up with Barbara Stanwyck in Double Indemnity, Claire Trevor’s Velma in Murder My Sweet, or Mary Astor in The Maltese Falcon, but they would certainly recognize her as a member in good standing of the club. Her bite is far worse than her lethal purr, her claws fatal to any man who falls under them.

   It is Mara, and surprisingly Richmond, who mostly lift this above itself. Certainly her more than him, but if he didn’t handle his own well as a smart tough slightly mercenary private eye more in the Spade or Michael Shayne mode than Philip Marlowe Mara would have no one to play off of. His slight cardboard quality lets her shine but is still attractive enough that you aren’t surprised she is attracted to him. He manages to convey toughness with his brains and not his brawn or his gun.

   You believe he could outwit her, only just, but still outwit her.

   This is much better than most private eye fare from this period and from a relatively low budget (slightly better than a B, but not quite an A). A good cast, a terrific central role by Mara, and good work all around by cast and crew make it worth catching.

   Just watch out, because Adele Mara’s Sharon Winslow has claws.

 

NOTE: This review from the past was first posted on this blog on August 24, 2012. The video link had gone black, so in the process of replacing it, I decided to allow everyone the chance to read it again.

      —

MURDER ON THE CAMPUS

MURDER ON THE CAMPUS. Chesterfield Pictures, 1933. Shirley Grey, Charles Starrett, J. Farrell MacDonald, Ruth Hall, Dewey Robinson, Maurice Black, Edward Van Sloan, Richard Catlett. Based on the novel The Campanile Murders, by Whitman Chambers (Appleton, 1933). Director: Richard Thorpe.

   Obviously a change in title from the book to the film was in order, since I’m sure that not one person in a thousand knows what a “campanile” is, then or now. Though you could look it up on your own, what it is, is a bell tower, such as commonly found on college and university campuses. And the significance of that is, is that is where the body of a student is found, shot to death in the temple with the wrong hand.

   What makes this otherwise ho-hum of a mystery interesting is that he was the only one at the top of the building. He was playing the carillon when the music suddenly stopped, and a shot rang out. No one is seen leaving the tower. The only door at the base was watched by a throng of students. No one is found in the tower, either. The building is too high and too far out of range for a bullet to have killed him from outside. It is definitely murder, though. There is no gun in the building, and there are no powder marks on the body.

   The detective in charge of the case, Police Captain Kyne (J. Farrell MacDonald), a grizzled veteran of the force who doesn’t seem to mind brash young reporter Bill Bartlett (Charles Starrett, boyishly handsome and long before he became the Durango Kid) tagging along as he randomly interrogates suspects and hunts for clues.

MURDER ON THE CAMPUS

   Bartlett has his own reasons for keeping an close eye on him. Besides getting the scoop for his paper, he’s in love with one of the chief suspects, Lillian Voyne (Shirley Grey). The latter is not only a student at the school (unnamed, unless I missed it) but she’s also a singer at a local night club. Strangely enough, she’s seen studying for a chem exam for all of two minutes in the movie and not singing once at all, not for an instant. I don’t know why, but I found myself disappointed.

   The school does have a chem lab where professor C. Edson Hawley (Edward Van Sloan) hangs out, but as for classrooms, I don’t remember seeing a one. The dead student, it seems, was not doing well in his course work, failed to meet expectations as a member of the track team he was recruited for, and according to head of the fraternity house where he lived, “he lacked the cultural background a college man should have.”

MURDER ON THE CAMPUS

   Which is an attitude beside the point, I suppose, or it is? But I have not forgotten about the locked room aspect of the murder, along with the mysterious fact that the gun that used to commit the crime was somewhere else at the time.

   The gimmick, as I would readily agree to call it, is a good one, and it would be even better if the investigation conducted by both of the separate parties (police and reporter) made more sense.

   What I really like to do is to read the book and say that the original author did a much better job with it. I have a strong feeling that he did, but the fact is I don’t own a copy, nor is there one offered for sale right now by anyone on the Internet.

UPDATE [03-05-20]: In conjunction with his Comment #8. Bill Pronzini sent me a cover image of The Campanile Murders, by Whitman Chambers. And here it is:

   

THE RIVERSIDE MURDER. Fox Film Co. UK, 1935. Basil Sydney (Inspector Philip Winton), Judy Gunn, Zoë Davis, Alastair Sim, Ian Fleming, Tom Helmore, Martin Lewis. Screenplay by Selwyn Jepson, based on the novel Les Six Hommes Morts by André Steeman. Director: Albert Parker.

    Most of this rather well done mystery movie takes place in an “old dark house,” British style. Someone is killing off the members of a financial pact in which those still alive at the appointed date and time will share in each others’ fortunes over the length of the pact.

   The local inspector (Basil Sydney) thinks he can handle the case without having to call Scotland Yard in, but can he handle the bubbling interference of a young female reporter (Judy Gunn) who always seems to be one step ahead of him? She’s as much of a challenge as solving the murders is.

   Long time readers of detective stories will not be challenged all that much by the plot, but it’s still a lot of fun to see it played out as capably as it is here. And fans of one Alistair Sim will not want to miss him in this, his very first film. He plays the inspector’s sergeant and second-in-command on the case, a semi-comic role that doesn’t depend on him being a total nincompoop, either, as those in the same position in many US films of the same variety oh so often turn out to be.


THE INNER CIRCLE. Republic Pictures, 1946. Adele Mara, Warren Douglas (as PI Johnny Strange), William Frawley, Ricardo Cortez, Virginia Christine, Will Wright. Screenplay by Dorrell McGowan & Stuart E. McGowan, based on a radio script by Leonard St. Clair & Lawrence Taylor. Director: Phil Ford.

   When the story begins, private eye Johnny Strange (whose one-man firm is called Action Incorporated) is darning the toe of his sock while at the same time calling a local newspaper to place an ad: “Wanted: secretary to human dynamo. Exclamation point. Must be blonde, beautiful, between 22 and 28, unmarried, with a skin you love to touch and a heart you can’t.”

   In walks Adela Mara as a beautiful bombshell named Gerry Smith, and takes the job, hanging up the phone and telling Johnny she has all of the qualifications. She does indeed qualify, except for perhaps that last requirement, however, the one about the skin and the heart: “Try both, brother, just try.” While she is finishing up the knitting job for him, a call from a client comes in.

   When Johnny meets her, without even a hint of what he’s being hired for, she’s dressed mysteriously all in black with a veil concealing her face. She leads him to a home where they find a dead man’s body, whereupon she knocks him on the head and leaves.

   Obviously she’s trying to frame him for the murder, but why? It isn’t as if the dead man, whose has his own radio gossip show, didn’t have plenty of real enemies who wouldn’t mind seeing him no longer around.

   Pure pulp fiction, in other words, and I haven’t even begun going into all pf the details I could to to reinforce that statement. (The screenplay was based on a radio script, but for what program, I have no idea.) There a lot of friendly banter between strange Strange and his new secretary, who comes along just in time to provide him an “self-defense” reason for killing the man.

   Johnny Strange — a rather naive individual, especially for one alleged to be a brash dynamo of a PI — is confused, and who could blame him? Much pleasurable silliness ensues, including a live reenactment of the crime over the radio, with all of the possible suspects playing their own roles. Whatever it takes to solve a crime, that’s what you have to do. (But this ending really is quite unique.)

NOTE:   The original running time was 65 minutes. The only print that seems to have survived is less than an hour long. There is an obvious break in the action about half way through, but it’s easy enough to fill in what’s missing.


REVIEWED BY DAVID VINEYARD:


THE NARROWING CIRCLE. Eros Films, UK. 1956. Paul Carpenter, Hazel Court, Russell Napier, Trevor Reid, Ferdy Mayne Screenplay by Doreen Montgomery, based on the novel by Julian Symons. Directed by Charles Saunders.

   Sigh …

   What can you say.

   The Narrowing Circle was a major breakthrough novel for critic and mystery novelist Julian Symons. Barzun and Taylor reckoned it was his best novel and ranked it high among the subgenre of mysteries set in a publishing house background (which includes Kenneth Fearing’s The Big Clock).

   Basically the story is that when a journalist’s rival for a major editorial job is killed after beating him out for the job and cheating with his girlfriend, it looks bad and as he delves into the mystery to clear himself, he stumbles across more bodies, convincing Inspector Crambo (Trevor Reid in the film) he’s the guilty man. “Plausible and entertaining,” was how Barzun and Taylor summed it up in A Catalogue of Crime.

   Alas, almost none of that is preserved in the low-budget feature made from the book starring the ever annoying and impossibly crass Paul Carpenter (whether Canadian or American, I never knew, but his inability to act transcended nationality, even in a time when British films thought they had to have at least a pseudo American lead), cheap production values, leaden direction, and a lame script.

   Any suspense films depends to some extent on identification or sympathy with the protagonist, but Carpenter, a singularly bad actor, makes that almost impossible.

   The “narrowing circle” of the title is a pretty good metaphor from the novel, the detective in the case describing to the protagonist suspect how the police dangle the noose lightly over the suspect’s neck and let him slowly draw it tight with his own actions, the “narrowing circle” of circumstantial evidence building against the suspect, often by his own hand.

    We open with Carpenter in his office dictating a rough tough hard boiled private eye story. Whether intentional of not, that’s a sort of backhand tribute to Symons, who has much derogatory to say about that kind of thriller. It’s the kind of grace note you could expect in one of Symons’ sharply observed books.

   The highlight is a scene where Hazel Court and Carpenter both try to silence the other while dictating a rough and tumble hard-boiled melee at the same time. I would really have liked to have seen that scene between two actors with charisma and timing. Alas that isn’t what you get, though Court is by far the best thing in this.

   And it is the last grace note you get in this amateurish by rote suspense mystery.

   Pretty soon we learn our hero expects to be be promoted to crime editor at the publishing house where he dawdles away his time penning cheap thrillers, even bragging to his homey blonde girlfriend. But when his rival gets the job (Ferdy Mayne) our hero also discovers he got the girl, who is two timing him, so when his rival turns up dead there is only one natural suspect.

   Bits and pieces of the Symons novel are still here, but so ineptly written, directed, and acted as to make it unrecognizable. Even the romance between rival reporter Hazel Court and Carpenter is sabotaged by Carpenter’s usual annoying performance and the trite and frankly illiterate screenplay and ham-handed direction.

   Any of the interesting bits about the inside workings of a big publishing house are lost in scenes of Carpenter stumbling around finding bodies. The screenplay doesn’t even try to make his stupidity remotely believable. By the end of the film you may be rooting for him to be charged and hanged for sheer stupidity.

   You really may have to see this to understand how bad the actors are. They stumble over their lines, miss their marks, and practically fall over their own feet. It looks like the crudest type of live television and not a film.

   Symons might not be everyone’s cuppa, but he was a literate writer who knew his way around suspense and mystery, and certainly his best book deserved better than this tiresome mess.

   Don’t let the narrowing circle of this noose choke the enjoyment out of you. Even if you are a major Symons’ fan, just skip this one. You can imagine a better adaptation of his book than this, certainly with a better cast.

   Anyone could.


THE GREAT HOTEL MURDER. 1935). Edmund Lowe, Victor McLaglen, Rosemary Ames, Mary Carlisle, Henry O’Neill, C. Henry Gordon, John Wray, Madge Bellamy. Based on the novel by Vincent Starrett. Director: Eugene Forde.

   Edmond Lowe, the star of two mystery movies recently reviewed here by David Vineyard, plays detective once again in The Grand Hotel Murder. An amateur detective, I should add. In real life he’s a writer of mystery novels, but also one who’s able to make Sherlock Holmes-type deductions just by careful observation of a young girl sitting impatiently in a hotel lobby.

   His counterpart in this film is a somewhat slower in the wits department hotel detective, played in good humorous fashion by Victor McLaglen. (This is not the only time that he and Lowe teamed up together, beginning with their Flagg and Quirt series, the first of which was What Price Glory?, a silent film released in 1926, with three or maybe four sequels.)

   The dead man whose murder is reflected in the title of the film was a gentlemen who finagled the young girl’s uncle into switching rooms with him over night. The question immediately of course is, who was the actual target?

   Lowe and McLaughlin do their best to one-up the other throughout the movie, and it comes as no surprise (without revealing anything) that it is Lowe’s character who almost always come out on top, to good comedic effect, as well as being a fairly decent detective story.

   The opening scenes follow Vincent Starrett’s novel fairly closely, but from that point on, the two story lines diverge significantly. I remember reading somewhere, a reference now lost, that after seeing the movie himself, Starrett confessed that the killer’s identity surprised him as much as anyone else.

   In conclusion, I will say that it surprised me too, even though I didn’t write the book.


REVIEWED BY DAN STUMPF:


TONY ROME. Fox, 1967. Frank Sinatra, Jill St John, Richard Conte, Gena Rowlands, Simon Oakland, Sue Lyon, Robert J Wilke, Rocky Graziano, Michael Romanoff and Shecky Greene. Screenplay by Richard Breen, based on the novel Miami Mayhem, by Anthony Rome (Pocket Books, 1960); later published by Dell (1967) as Tony Rome, under the author’s true name Marvin H. Albert. Directed by Gordon Douglas.

   Required viewing.

   The success of Harper (1966) sparked a modest revival of movie PIs, giving us Gunn (1967), PJ (1968) and Tony Rome to liven up the waning decade – not that the 60s needed much enlivening, thank you, but this was a worthy entry in the cycle, a film that flaunts its vulgarity with commendable energy.

   Gordon Douglas’s punchy direction helps a lot, and Sinatra approaches the tough PI part… well, not seriously, but he doesn’t phone it in either, and he’s supported by a cast that moves easily through the gaudy squalor. I particularly liked Robert J. Wilke as Rome’s ex-cop ex-partner:

TURPIN: “I saved your life.”

ROME: “I could square that with a stick of chewing gum.”

   Even Jill St John seems at ease as a much-divorced lady of what we used to call “easy virtue” who makes her entrance walking toward Sinatra as Sue Lyon hisses “SLUT!”

FRANK: “Well now that we’ve been introduced…”

JILL: “Slut’s just my nick name.”

   The story involves… well, I never could get it straight. Something about missing diamonds, shady jewelers, hired killers and unhappy wives. TONY ROME also takes advantage of the loosened restrictions of its time to bring in a few gay characters, all them treated shabbily; standards had grown looser but not matured.

   This aside, Tony Rome offers everything a fan of the genre could ask: clever dialogue, brutal fight scenes and sudden shoot-outs (director Douglas’s signature bit was a guy returning fire even as he visibly shudders under the impact of his opponent’s bullets) and an attitude at once flip and gritty. And it all leads to a resolution that recalls the weary disenchantment of Double Indemnity.

   Don’t mistake me. Tony Rome is miles away from Wilder’s classic by just about any standard. But its trashy attitude is just perfect for the PI film of a troubled time.


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