Mystery movies

Reviewed by DAN STUMPF:

SEBASTIEN JAPRISOT – The 10:30 from Marseilles. Doubleday Crime Club, hardcover, 1963. Pocket, paperback, 1964. Souvenir Press, UK, hardcover, 1964. Originally published as Compartiment Tueurs, Paris, 1962; translated into English by Francis Price.

THE SLEEPING CAR MURDERS. Fox, 1966. First released in France, 1965, as Compartiment tueurs. Yves Montand, Simone Signoret, Jean-Louiis Trintingnant, Michel Piccoli, Catherine Allegret and Jacques Perrin. Written and directed by Costa-Gravas.

   Two approaches to the same story, with striking differences.

   In the book, the 10:30 a.m. train from Marseilles pulls into Paris and the guy who cleans out the cars finds a dead woman, strangled in her berth (one of six) in a sleeping car. The Police begin their investigation at the logical place: find out who else was in that compartment and see what they know.

   Inspector Graziani and his assistant Jean-Lou get the unenviable assignment of tracking them down, with the dubious help of their superior, a sub-chief who likes to talk in pithy but useless aphorisms (“Cover everything. It’s always where you don’t look….”) whereupon….

   We cut to Berth 226 and the man who used it last night: What he was doing there, how he interacted with the other passengers, and his reaction on finding out the Police want to talk to him. Then, as he rehearses his story, someone comes up from behind and shoots him.

   Graziani and Jean-Lou, meanwhile, are still running down leads and find themselves with a problem: One passenger tells them there was a berth unoccupied; another passenger insists there was a man in it; and the woman who bought the ticket maintains she was there all night.

   Then we cut to another Berth and the woman who used it; what she was doing on the train, what she saw there, and a long bit about her background. She tells the Police everything she knows, and after they leave, someone comes up from behind and shoots her.

   And so it goes as we follow the investigating officers, then switch to another passenger… who also ends up dead. And then another. And then… well, you get the idea; someone is killing everyone who was on the train that night. But why? And how is the killer finding them?

   Then, as we’re running out of berths, the pattern breaks and we get the answer to the riddle of the not-empty bed. We also get a charming tale of young love and youthful idiocy, mixed with a tense cat-and-mouse between the police, the killer, and his last victim.

   Japrisot’s puzzle is a tricky one, and I applaud his craftsmanship, but I have to say things tend to drag a bit when he details the lives of his passenger/victims. It’s as if he’s more interested in the puzzle than the characters — and it shows.

   Costa-Gravas’s film suffers from something similar; things drag seriously when he gets into the minutia of the characters involved, but he manages to save the effort with some sly visual tricks and camerawork that manages to be stylish without showing off.

   Interestingly, he also chooses to reconstruct the story in linear fashion. We start with everyone getting on board before the murder, see them interact, understand the problem of the empty berth right from the start, and get involved with the young klutzes who end up being pursued by the killers.

   Yves Montand has the dog-weary look appropriate for a police detective, and Simone Signoret radiates her usual overstuffed star power, but the most interesting performances come from Catherine Allegret and Daniel Perrin as a pair of youngsters caught up in the machinations of Japrisot’s tricky plot. Together they convey the kind of emotional reality one finds in the best films of Francois Truffaut, and I found myself wanting to see more of their affairs and less of the murders, well-done though they are.

   And one other nod to cinematic convention: Where the book wraps up with off-page arrests, interviews and confessions, the movie ends with a car chase and shoot-out; well done, but I still wanted to see more of those crazy kids.


TWENTY PLUS TWO. Allied Artists, 1961. David Janssen, Jeanne Crain, Dina Merrill, Brad Dexter, Jacques Aubachon, Robert Strauss, Agnes Moorehead, William Demarest. Screenplay by Frank Gruber, based on his novel. Directed by Joseph M. Newman.

   Julia Joliet, who runs a clipping service in Hollywood whose chief client is movie star Leroy Dane (Brad Dexter), is brutally murdered and her offices searched. It seems like a pointless crime, but among her clippings is one on Doris Delaney, a debutante who went missing over a decade earlier from her exclusive school and wealthy home in New York, and that catches the eye of Tom Alder (David Janssen) who makes his living finding missing people, and for whom the Delaney case is a sort of obsession.

   When Alder casually arranges to run into Dane at a bar he also coincidentally is spotted by Linda Foster (Jeanne Crain), the girl who sent him a Dear John letter while he was in the service in Tokyo recovering from a wound that has healed better than his heart. Linda is there with her latest fiancé, but not averse to reopening the relationship with Tom, and also accompanied by her friend Nikki Kovacs (Dina Merrill) and her wealthy fiancé.

   When Alder finds a clue that was meaningless to the police in Joliet’s place it puts him on a plane to New York, surprisingly along with Nikki Kovacs who is getting off in Chicago to see family. There is something about her Alder can’t quiet shake, but he hasn’t time to pursue it. He is also, unknown to him, being followed by a mysterious cultured fat man who he saw outside Joliet’s apartment.

   In New York he begins to piece together the pieces of the Delaney case with the help of a drunken reporter (William Demarest), a private eye buddy (Robert Strauss), and Mrs. Delaney (Agnes Moorehead) who suspects he is nothing but another opportunist until he makes the first real break in the case in over a decade. Meanwhile things are moving along on other fronts.

   The mysterious fat man is Jacques “Big Frenchy” Pleschette (Jacques Aubachon), a former con man who has spent most of his adult life in prison, and who is willing to pay $10,000 to find his estranged younger brother Auguste who he has not seen since the war. Linda Foster has shown up too, concerned about Nikki Kovacs, who has gone missing and it turns out has no family in Chicago, and also looking to renew romantic relations with Alder. Even Leroy Dane shows up on a publicity tour.

   With the pressure on Alder recalls in flashback a girl he met in Tokyo, Lily Brown, while he was recovering from his wound, and fell for.

   And as he pieces together all the diverse bits of information he gathers in his investigation it all begins to dovetail together in dangerous ways.

   I won’t go any farther, you probably have figured it out anyway. Despite the noirish elements Twenty Plus Two is really just a pretty good little mystery and not film noir. Alder is only mildly haunted and obsessed, and everything falls together a bit too neatly. The film plays mostly as a made for television movie and not a feature, a fact enhanced by the kind of guest stars and cast you would expect on television in the period.

   That said, this film, produced by Frank Gruber, from his own novel and screenplay, is still pretty good in a low key way, and notable in that much of the sub plot is borrowed from Eric Ambler’s A Coffin for Dimitrios, which became a film, Mask for Dimitrios, with a screenplay by Frank Gruber. Big Frenchy Pleschette is Mr. Peters, the character played by Sidney Greenstreet in the film, and his brother Auguste the Dimitrios figure he wants to find — and blackmail.

   Many of the plot elements were updated and moved from Hollywood and New York to Hong Kong, for The Gold Gap (reviewed here ) another Gruber novel from late in his career, and the missing heir who has changed their life also appears as a key element in Gruber’s Bridge of Sand.

   Pulp writers never let anything go unused.

   Twenty Plus Two was a better book than film; it plays too much like a two-part episode of a television anthology series to ever really gel as a feature, and noirish elements don’t make noir, but it is professionally done all around, attractive, well written, cogent, and all the elements do tie together neatly even explaining why Julia Joliet had to be killed.

   There is nothing exciting about it, but it is a satisfying little mystery film that crosses and dots all the right letters, thanks to Gruber’s expertise in the field, even if the long arm of coincidence in this one at times seems to belong to Plastic Man.


SEVEN SINNERS. Gainsborough, UK, 1936. Released in the US as Doomed Cargo. Edmund Lowe, Constance Cummings, Thomy Bourdelle and Felix Aylmer. Written by Frank Launder and Sidney Gilliat. Directed by Albert de Courvile.

   There’s a venerable tradition in British thrillers of this period; the hero finds a dead man in his room, notifies the authorities, and either:

   A: He’s accused of murder and on the run from the police and the real killers


   B: The body disappears and everyone assumes he’s drunk or crazy… except the real killers.

   In this case it’s “B” and the hero is hard-drinking detective Edmund Lowe, on vacation in Nice (the Pinkertons must pay quite well, it seems) at carnival, compete with sinister masks, dizzying fireworks and a pretty Insurance agent (Miss Cummings) trying to drag him off to Scotland to recover some missing jewels.

   She at length gets our hero on board a Scotland-bound Express but they never do get there because someone wrecks the train and amid the carnage, Lowe sees the body of the man who was murdered in his room (“Where better to hide a leaf than in a forest.”) and the process begins of finding out why he was killed and who might have done it.

   With the aid of a helpful French Police Inspector (Bourdelle) Lowe begins tracking down a killer who is quickly becoming a mass murderer, following up on old photographs, last year’s invitations, bridge tournaments (!) and an obscure death certificate, eventually uncovering a sinister international conspiracy (another tradition of Brit thrillers in those days) headed by a mysterious mastermind with a funny hand (yet another tradition…) who turns out to be a respectable etc. etc.

   Writers Launder and Gilliat handle it all with the energy and wit they brought to thrillers like The Lady Vanishes, Green Man, Night Train to Munich, and director de Courville keeps the pace brisk, emphasizing the repartee between Lowe and Cummings as much as the chases and spectacle. There are three jarring and visceral train wrecks in this movie, and oddly enough the least effective is an actual train wreck lifted from a silent film. The others are achieved with montage and inventive special effects and they contain some splendid visuals.

   Edmund Lowe and Constance Cummings play off each other very well in the leads, mastering an anglicized version of the Nick-and-Nora thing quite agreeably, but the writers and director do just as well with the minor characters and bit players with the result that Seven Sinners comes alive with the feel of a dizzying thriller set among very real people.

THE MAD MAGICIAN. Columbia Pictures, 1954. Vincent Price, Mary Murphy, Eva Gabor, John Emery, Donald Randolph, Lenita Lane, Patrick O’Neal, Jay Novello. Story & screenplay: Crane Wilbur. Director: John Brahm.

   If stealing ideas and pieces and pieces of various scenes from other movies were a crime, The Mad Magician would seriously be on the verge of being sent up for a ten-year stretch. Crane Wilbur, who wrote the story and screenplay also did the screenplay for House of Wax, which came out the year before, but for Warner Brothers, and probably not so coincidentally also starred Vincent Price in the leading role.

   Both films were also in 3-D, though this one is in black-and-white, while House of Wax was in color. In both films the theme is that of revenge. In both cases it is Vincent Price’s character who is wronged, but getting even is where the fun comes in, at least for the viewer, if not his victims.

   Director John Brahm, among other films, did both The Lodger (1944) and Hangover Square (1945), two films which take place in roughly the same time period as this one, or the turn of the last century, and one scene in The Mad Magician, in which Price’s character rents a room as part of the plot he is perpetrating, is more than strongly reminiscent of a similar scene in The Lodger.

   As the fledgling magician Gallico the Great, Price’s character is taken advantage of twofold, first by the owner of his contract that says that all the tricks Price creates belong to him, then by a rival magician, The Great Rinaldi, who then appropriates them to use in his own act.

   The new science of fingerprints has a great deal to do with solving the case (murder), which is investigated by Lt. Bruce (Patrick O’Neal), the boy friend of Karen Lee (Mary Murphy), Gallico’s very comely assistant, along with the mystery writer wife of the couple who own the house in which Gallico rented the room.

   It’s a complicated story, and maybe it doesn’t make a lot of sense, but where this movie goes off in another direction from the others I’ve mentioned, is its arch sense of humor and fun behind the mayhem. I wish they’d showed the audience how the “Lady and Buzzsaw” trick in real time, though. The “Crematorium” is just as deadly, one assumes, but if they’d wanted to have made a sequel, à la all those Freddy movies, I really think they could have.


MIDNIGHT AT MADAME TUSSAUD’S. Paramount British Pictures, UK, 1936. Released in the US as Midnight at the Wax Museum. Charles Carew, James Oliver, Lucille Lisle, Kim Peacock, Patrick Barr, William Hartnell, Bernard Miles. Written by J. Steven Edwards, Roger MacDougall and Kim Peacock. Directed by George Pearson.

   Wax Museums exert a sinister fascination in the movies that they somehow never achieve (for me at least) in real life. Every Wax Museum I’ve ever visited seemed unconvincing and a bit dull, except for the Boris Karloff Wax Museum in Niagara Falls, which was so tacky as to cause alarm.

   Maybe it has something to do with the camerawork, or the nature of Film itself, but in the movies (the best of them anyway) the dullness of Wax Museums gives way to a creepy sub-reality that comes across in evocative backgrounds and creepy denizens — Lionel Atwill, Vincent Price and Martin Kosleck (in The Frozen Ghost) — who seem like extensions of their nightmare background.

   The creepy denizen in Midnight/Tussaud’s is Bernard Miles (no, I never heard of him either.) and he conveys the mood of malevolent nerdiness perfectly as he escorts World-famous explorer Sir James Cheyne (Carewe) and a group of notables about the London Tourist Trap for the unveiling of Cheyne’s wax replica. Then he pretty much drops out of the movie, worse luck, as we get a bit of exposition; Cheyne’s broker-friend (Oliver) is oddly evasive about some funds supposedly coming due, and Cheyne himself is not at all happy about the suitor (Peacock, who also worked on the screenplay) courting his daughter (Lisle).

   So when the Creepy Curator dares the Intrepid Explorer to spend a night alone in the Museum, we can tell something interesting is going to develop, and it does, quickly, because this thing’s only an hour long. In fact it may me take longer to tell it than the movie did.

   Briefly, Lisle gets engaged to the unworthy Peacock, a brash reporter (Patrick Barr) finds out and thinks it just a tidbit for the Society page but soon senses something beneath the surface. Turns out Peacock is already married, and he and the broker-friend are in dastardly cahoots to milk Carewe and his daughter of their wealth — or as much of it as they can get, anyway.

   By now you’ve figured out that the brash reporter and the daughter start up a tentative and playful romance (you DID see that coming, didn’t you?) which bungs up the schemes of our plotters, and they decide the best move is to send the Explorer on a trip he never planned. And since he’ll be conveniently isolated in the Wax Museum that very night….

   …And this is where the film lets us down. Murder in a Wax Museum should be a thing filled with odd camera angles, creepy shadows, menacing-but-still figures, an occasional furtive movement or gleaming eye among the dummies, and all that sort of thing. But we get none of that here. Not even a hint. What we get instead is an interminable stretch of the murderer skulking through the dark, intercut with even-less-terminable shots of Carewe reading the newspaper — how’s that for thrills?

   The big problem with this whole sequence is that we never get a sense of their relative positions; the killer slinks, lurks and prowls, Carewe does the crossword and lights a cigar, but we never know if the villain is getting closer or just wandering around in some other movie. Bad show, that.

   All this is intercut with our brash reporter confronting the absolute bounder/fiancé, a fist-fight that looks as though the players were trying hard not to hurt each other, and a desperate race to get to the Museum in time to save Carewe… and it all fails to generate the least bit of suspense because the Museum scenes look like they could go on indefinitely.

   The end result is a movie that coulda been a contender — but it ain’t. I should add though that the brash reporter’s comic-relief assistant is played by William Hartnell — who went on to fame, or at least cult status, as DOCTOR WHO.

NOTE: The book review that follows was first posted on this blog on 20 August 2015. The movie review that follows after that was written today. Also note that the first eight comments were left last year and refer to the book only.

  PHILIP MacDONALD – The Mystery of the Dead Police. Doubleday/Crime Club, US, hardcover, 1933. Pocket #70, paperback, 1940. Dell D-247, Great Mystery Library #19, paperback, 1958. Macfadden Books 60-205, paperback, 1965. Vintage, paperback, 1984. First published in the UK as X v. Rex by Collins Crime Club, hardcover, 1933, as by Martin Porlock. Films: MGM, 1934, as The Mystery of Mr. X; MGM, 1952, as The Hour of Thirteen.

   I don’t know where this book falls chronologically in terms of serial killer fiction, but it must have been one the first. (Agatha Christie’s The ABC Murders was published in 1936, for example, but serial killers themselves (e.g. Jack the Ripper) had been around for a long time when this book was written.)

   The victims in this one, though, are all policemen. We know that the killer is a madman, for every so often we are given glimpses into his diary after each death, often in very inventive ways. There is an attempt by the author to throw suspicion on a gentleman adventurer named Nicholas Revel. He is, apparently, well-to-do, but no one, including Scotland Yard, knows how he has gained his fortune.

   The madman’s diary, I suspect, is of little interest to readers today — too many serial killers have come down the pike in the meantime, I’m afraid — but the mysterious activities of Mr Revel? This is what makes this tale go down a lot more easily than a lot of other detective fiction does that was written in 1933.

   Revel clears the former fiancé of Jane Frensham of being the killer, for example, but then he also seems to be romancing her a little as well. But since Miss Frensham’s father is the chief commissioner of the police, he finds himself helping to investigate the crimes, whether he wishes to or not.

   MacDonald is equally inventive in the way he tells the story, often in very short snippets from a multitude of viewpoints. The flaws in the telling, as I saw them, is that (as pointed out above) the madman is just that, mad, and that Revel’s place in the story is, alas, telegraphed long before I would have liked it to have been.

   But until the ending, I enjoyed the book very much. There is much about it that I will remember for some time. It has been considered a classic in many quarters over the years, but in today’s world of mystery fiction, I’m afraid it would be considered an old-fashioned and dated relic of its time, all for the reasons previously suggested or pointed out, nothing more, but nothing less, either.

THE HOUR OF 13. MGM, 1952. Peter Lawford (Nicholas Revel), Dawn Addams (Jane Frensham), Roland Culver, Derek Bond, Leslie Dwyer, Michael Hordern. Based on the novel The Mystery of the Dead Police, by Philip MacDonald. Director: Harold French.

   I have been told, but I do not know how true it may be, that this later film follows the earlier quite closely. If so, then even without seeing it, I can tell you that I’d be disappointed with the earlier one, too.

   Some of it has to do with Production Code. In the book [SPOILER WARNING] Revel gets away with his plan. In the movie, he is not so lucky. The final scene was the final straw, as far as I was concerned.

   Other changes: It is clear from the beginning of the movie what Revel’s plan is. It was revealed sooner in the book what he is up to than I would have liked, but for quite a while it causes quite a mystery if not a challenge to reader to figure it out on his or her own.

   The semi-romance between Revel and the police commissioner’s daughter (Dawn Addams) is nipped in the bud far from the end of the movie. Revel and the fiancé shake hands, and neither the latter nor the girl are mentioned again. In the movie, the killer is given a motive; in the book as I recall he was imply a madman. The time frame has been changed also, from the 1930s to Victorian England.

   But the biggest change, I think, was bigger than any of the above. In the book, a great amount of emphasis was placed on the serial killer, and the inability of Scotland Yard to capture him was such a sensational story that it threatened to bring the government down. In the movie, very little attention was placed on this. The byplay between Revel and the gentlemen at Scotland Yard is the complete story, somewhat amusing but much more trivial than what the larger impact the book intended to provide.

   Your opinions may vary on this. In terms of your enjoyment of the movie, it might be helpful if you have not read the book. It also might help if your opinion of Peter Lawford’s acting ability is greater than mine. He has a great speaking voice, but I have never found any depth in any of the characters I have ever seen him portray.

BLACK ORCHID. General Film Distributors/Kenilworth Film Productions, UK, 1953. Ronald Howard, Olga Edwardes, John Bentley, Mary Laura Wood, Patrick Barr, Sheila Burrell, Russell Napier. Director: Charles Saunders.

   Other than the leading man, Ronald Howard, on occasion known as Sherlock Holmes, the cast consisted of total unknowns to me, but this 60 minute detective thriller, within its limited range, made for an hour’s worth of good watching time. Not only that, I now know the names of two lady players to look out for in the future.

   In Black Orchid, Howard plays a research doctor whose marriage to a society class wife (Mary Laura Wood) is crumbling, and when the woman’s sister (Olga Edwardes) finds his medical research as fascinating as he does, he finds the attraction mutual. Divorce proceedings quickly ensue, but marriage unfortunately does not. It seems as though there was a law in England at the time forbidding men from marrying sisters of divorced wives.

   Until they die. The divorced wives, that is. You can guess what happens next, the police being prodded on by the dead woman’s devoted maid (Sheila Burrell). One clue to attest to the doctor’s innocence is, and maybe you can guess this, too, is a black orchid.

   The satisfaction you can get from watching small compact thrillers such as Black Orchid depends a great deal on your willingness to accept small jumps in logic and a certain trust in the fact that coincidences do happen. Set those aside, and you may have, as I say, a nifty little detective drama on your hands.

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