Mystery movies

DEVIL IN A BLUE DRESS. TriStar Pictures, 1995. Denzel Washington (Easy Rawlins), Tom Sizemore, Jennifer Beals, Don Cheadle (Mouse), Maury Chaykin, Terry Kinney, Mel Winkler. Based on the book by Walter Mosley (also Associate Producer). Screenplay & director: Carl Franklin.

   When a young black man named Easy Rawlins, an unemployed aircraft worker who owns his own home in 1948 Los Angeles, is offered a job to find Daphne Monet, a white woman who is known to hang out in the juke joints in the city, he jumps at the chance. It turns out that Daphne is/was the girl friend of the man who has just dropped out of the current race for mayor, and when the girl who helps Easy track her down is murdered, it’s Easy whom the cops will pin her death on, unless he can do something about it.

   I’ve read some of the Easy Rawlins books, but not this one, which was the first. I have read that Denzell Washington was not Walter Mosley’s first choice to play Easy Rawlins, but this is not the first time I think an author was wrong as to whom would be best play his own character. Of course, I think Washington can play almost any character and make it work, and to me, he certainly does here.

   I loved the way director Carl Franklin recreated sections of late 1940s L.A. so perfectly, not to mention the lives led by the people who lived there, including their relationship with the police force, deeply infested with racism if not out and out malice. The era may also have been Raymond Chandler territory, but this movie takes us into locales that Chandler never was or could have been.

   As for Easy’s homicidal friend and sidekick Mouse (Don Cheadle), the way he is introduced could have been seriously improved upon. He came on the scene way too quickly (and conveniently) for me.

   In general critics seemed to have liked the movie, but it did not do well at the box office, and chances at a followup film seem awfully slim. I can think of a couple of reasons for this. First of all, it’s a complicated story, and by the two-thirds mark, it’s easy not to remember who all of the characters are. Secondly and honestly, I don’t think that audiences even as recently as 1995 were ready to see a movie in which one of the driving components was racism in 1948 L.A.


LESLIE CHARTERIS – The Saint in New York. The Saint #15. Hodder & Stoughton, UK, hardcover, 1935. Doubleday, US, hardcover, 1935. Avon #44, US, paperback, 1944. Reprinted many times, in both hardcover and paperback. Note: A shorter version appeared in the The American Magazine, September 1934.

THE SAINT IN NEW YORK. RKO, 1938. Louis Hayward, Kay Sutton, Jonathan Hale, Sig Ruman, Jack Carson, Paul Guilfoyle, Frederick Burton, Ben Weldon, Paul Fix, Leon Belasco. Screenplay: Charles Kaufman & Mortimer Offner, based on the novel by Leslie Charteris. Directed by Ben Holmes.

   Inspector John Fernack of the New York Police Department is fed up with the rampant crime plaguing the city when he vents to the Commissioner.

   “There’s times when I wish I knew a guy like this Saint was here in New York—doing things like it says in that dossier,” he said. “There’s times when for two cents I’d resign from the Force and do ’em myself. I’d sleep better nights if I knew there was things like that going on in this city.”

   And as Fernack is going to learn sometimes you should be careful what you wish for.

   The Saint in New York is not my favorite Saint novel, but I will be the first to admit it is likely Charteris’s best novel, and it was certainly the best film adaptation of the character and his work despite his own dislike of the film.

   Not surprisingly Simon Templar’s arrival in New York also ushers in a considerably tougher, even hard-boiled version of the Saint, who had been around almost a decade when the novel was published in 1934. Indeed, the book itself was heavily censored in its early magazine and newspaper serialization, close to emasculated, because the full thing is a wild ride full of bursts of gunfire and violence, breathless escapes from impossible traps, cold blooded killings, the kidnapping of an innocent child, and the kind of retribution the Saint is famous for. There is also a beautiful and sexy femme fatale who is not only a match for the Saint, but possibly even wilder than the adventurer himself.

   The plot is that old favorite about the citizens committee that decides to clean up the city by extra legal means, in this case persuading one of its members, one Valcross, to find and hire Simon Templar to eliminate six of the big time racketeers terrorizing New York. Simon takes the job and arrives in New York with typical Saintly verve notifying his victims they are on his list.

   “It goes back to some grand times—of which you’ve heard,” he said quietly. “The Saint was a law of his own in those days, and that little drawing stood for battle and sudden death and all manner of mayhem. Some of us lived for it—worked for it — fought for it; one of us died for it…There was a time when any man who received a note like I sent to Irboll, with that signature, knew that there was nothing more he could do. And since we’re out on this picnic, I’d like things to be the same—even if it’s only for a little while.”

   Not too long after he polished off Irboll the Saint is captured and taken to the lair of yet another of his victims, and it is there he finds the kidnapped little girl and first meets the beautiful and enigmatic Fay Edwards, who is connected in some mysterious way with all the men on his list.

   Escaping and rescuing the little girl with typical Saintly elan the Saint finds himself entranced by Fay Edwards even as he moves on his next victim.

   Eventually he meets Fay and he discovers that behind the six men he has been sent to kill is the Big Fella, the mastermind who with Fay’s help recruited the six criminals and who meticulously planned all their crimes, He also learns the big payoff is due soon when the Big Fella plans to split the profits — to a much smaller group than originally planned thanks to the Saint.

   I’m not going to pretend this one takes much effort for any mystery reader to figure out. Even in 1934 the villain should have been pretty obvious, which is why Charteris, who must have been well aware of this, never lets the action falter, never give the reader a chance to catch his breath, and piles incident upon incident in one of the most sustained action novels of its type ever penned.

   His trembling hands went up as if to shield himself from the stare of those devilish blue eyes.

   “Death,” said the Saint, in a voice of terrible softness. “Death is my racket.”

   The Saint gets his man, the femme fatale meets the fate of most her kind, and the Saint and Inpector Fernack develop a much different relationship than the one he has back home with Inspector Teal.

   You know how it is, prophets in their own land.

   Charteris was working at Paramount when RKO bought the rights to his novel and the Saint came to the screen for the first time. Despite Charteris’s caveats, Louis Hayward is far and away the most Saintly of film Saints, hard edged but smooth, dangerous, suave, funny, and closer to the actual character in the books than any actor before or since. The scenes between he and Kay Sutton are not only well written, they are damn sexy considering when the film was made.

   There is a first rate cast with Jonathan Hale as Fernack, Kay Sutton as Fay, and a who’s who of bad guys that include Sig Ruman, Jack Carson, Paul Guilfoyle (as a semi comic team of killers Red and Heimie), Paul Fix, and Ben Weldon. The screenplay is fairly close to the book, certainly capturing the tone of the books better than any since, and the action is well staged.

   Granted it looks a little cheap here and there, and it could all be done a bit smoother, but it is the genuine Saint we are seeing in action, not the rather bored George Sanders or the dull Hugh Sinclair, and not the late much more sedate version television gave us (true to the later stories and novels in the series, there being almost as many versions of Simon Templar as there are of Ellery Queen).

   Whatever it’s flaws, you can imagine Hayward in white tie and tails singing to a Bobby beneath a street light or leaping through a window guns blazing — which he does at least twice in this film. Unlike later Saint’s he even makes use of his knife though he doesn’t seem to have named them.

   Some of the Sanders films are fun, and Hayward made an interesting if not entirely successful return to Sainthood in The Saint’s Girl Friday twenty years later. There is at least one French adaptation of a Saint novel done without Charteris’s permission (The Dance of Death (1960) with Felix Marten and based on “Palm Springs”) and available with the hero’s name changed.

   And of course there was the much loved Roger Moore series, a second series with Ian Ogilvy, a failed pilot, a series of made for television films with Simon Dutton, the Val Kilmer film, and a 2013 pilot with Adam Raynor (available on Netflix). That doesn’t include comics, comic strips, and the radio series that starred Vincent Price and later Brian Aherne as the Saint, but this is far and away the closest to Leslie Charteris’s vision of the character, making it ironic that he disliked it and Hayward so much, but I suppose when his ideals were Cary Grant and Rex Harrison anyone would be a letdown.

   Whoever plays the role next, I’m willing to bet it will be with less than half the verve and style Hayward brings to the part in his American debut as a leading man. For one time, and one time only, he was the Saint, the real one, not the rather wan imitation we have gotten since, and that is something Saint fans have every right to treasure.


MENACE. Paramount, 1934. Gladys Michael, Paul Cavanaugh, Berton Churchill, Henrietta Crossman, John Lodge, Raymond Milland, Halliwell Hobbes, Robert Allen, Forester Harvey, Arletta Duncan Screenplay Chandler Sprague, Anthony Veilliers based on the novel R.I.P by Philip MacDonald (Collins, UK, 1933; published in the US as Menace, Doubleday, 1933). Directed by Ralph Murphy.

RYNOX. Ideal, 1932. Stuart Rome, John Londgren, Dorothy Boyd. Screenplay (mostly uncredited) J. Jefferson Farejohn, John Jerome, Philip MacDonald (his novel, Collins, UK, 1930; published in the US as The Rynox Murder Mystery , Doubleday, 1931), and Michael Powell, the latter also director.

   These two adaptations of novels by Philip MacDonald were virtually unknown to me until they showed up on YouTube, and certainly neither of them is in a class with his better known film adaptations such as X Vs Rex, Patrol, The List of Adrian Messenger (which ironically has a screenplay by Anthony Veilliers who co-wrote this one), 23 Paces to Baker Street, or even the earlier version of that book under its British title The Nursemaid Who Disappeared.

    Menace is the somewhat better of the two, working at least as a suspense film to some extent if not as much as a mystery, and moving with some vigor. Gladys Michael, Paul Cavanaugh, and Berton Churchill are wealthy friends in Africa just before the monsoons. Bored, they convince dam supervisor Ray (billed as Raymond) Milland to leave his post to play bridge with them. When the storms break early, Milland tries to fly back through the storm only to arrive in time to see the dam collapse and his mother and sister below killed, as well as hundreds of others.

   In a fit of remorse he flies his plane into the ground taking his own life.

   Back in England his brother Timothy, who is mentally disturbed, swears vengeance on the three he blames for his brother’s death, is put in a mental asylum, escapes, and one year later they are in Malibu in Michael’s beach side villa when he finally catches up with them.

   Soon to be trapped in the villa with them are a new butler (Halliwell Hobbes) hired from an agency, and who proves to be a crack shot when Cavanaugh tests him; Michael’s younger sister, who she raised when their parents died and her fiance (Arletta Duncan and Robert Allen); Cavanaugh’s driver (Forester Harvey); and a nosy eccentric old lady neighbor (Henrietta Crossman) who shows up on their doorstep with her son’s friend in tow (John Lodge).

   Not long after the lights go out, and the phone goes dead and all the autos are sabotaged. Not long after that Churchill is killed by a knife thrown by Timothy. Then Cavanaugh barely survives an attack.

   Now they are waiting for Timothy to strike and unsure who he is, if he is one of them at all. All we know is we have seen the butler attack Michael’s sister and tie her up and gag her.

   Not much real mystery here about who the killer is, even with a bit of misdirection, and there is one decent clue planted early on that does explain one surprise; plus two suspects complain of headaches– which we know Timothy suffers from — as half decent red herrings.

   What is notable here is not the film itself, which is at best a minor success, but just how stiff and unreal everyone else in the film seems after Ray Milland’s few scenes at the start. His perfect ease on screen, even delivering what isn’t much more than ‘tennis anyone’ dialogue, compared to everyone else in the film is striking. The film actually never recovers from his early death because there is no one in the film even remotely as attractive or natural on screen.

   It is about as clear a demonstration of the power of a natural screen presence as you will ever see. It’s as if everyone else is in a different film.

   Rynox, based on the The Rynox Mystery, basically has one thing going for it. It happens to be one of the earliest films directed by Michael Powell, who as one half of the Archers (with Emric Pressberger) would create such films as 49th Parallel, Black Narcissus, A Matter of Life and Death, I Know Where I’m Going, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, and more.

   Tycoon and founder of Rynox, F. X, Benedik (Rome) is threatened by the theatrical and larger than life Boswell Marsh. When Benedik is murdered, son Tony Benedik (Longdren, and the closest thing to Anthony Gethryn in the film — ironically Longdren is also television’s first Sherlock Holmes) takes over the business and the investigation.

   Unfortunately the very nature of film means the big reveal that made the novel a success is so obvious even the most naive film goer must have found it crystal clear. The script tries hard — little surprise with that lineup — and Powell shows a few directorial flourishes, but when the chief surprise in any mystery is telegraphed as this one is by bad acting and worse makeup, there isn’t much anyone can do to save it.

   This might have worked better is they had actually filmed the book as a detective story instead of trying to getting into character and showing the viewer far too much. I’ll only say that something similar worked much better when John Huston tried his hand at a MacDonald novel.

   Both films are mostly of interest to MacDonald fans or film historians, the former for an early star turn by Ray Milland and the latter as a footnote in the career of Michael Powell. I won’t warn anyone off them, because both have their moments, but take them for what they are, primitive variations on more familiar formulas.

   Menace at least has the advantage of moving fast and one or two touches of suspense and actual mystery, Rynox — well, it’s an early film by a great director.

MARLOWE. MGM, 1969. James Garner James Garner (Philip Marlowe), Gayle Hunnicutt, Carroll O’Connor, Rita Moreno, Sharon Farrell (Orfamay Quest), Kenneth Tobey, Bruce Lee. Screenplay by Stirling Silliphant, based on the novel The Little Sister by Raymond Chandler. Director: Paul Bogart.

   From beginning to end, the movie follows the book almost as closely as it could be done, starting with PI Philip Marlowe being hired by a young girl from Kansas to find her brother Orrin, who has come to L.A. to find work. But even though the story’s the same, and (so I’m told) some of the dialogue is the same, something’s missing. This is not the story Raymond Chandler wrote. Not the way I visualized it. It’s difficult to put into words, but if you watch the trailer below, I think you’ll see what I mean. (Hint: Bruce Lee.)

   What the movie is, to my way of thinking, more than anything else, is James Garner starring in an extended episode of The Rockford Files. It’s his story on the screen, not Chandler’s.

   The story does get darker and a lot more noirish as it nears the end, which is slightly different from the book, as I recall, but not so much as it makes any difference. Not that any of these observations make the movie bad, I hasten to add, and if you’re a Garner fan, I think you very well may love this movie. If you’re a Chandler fan, perhaps not as much.


THE CAT AND THE CANARY. Grenadier, 1978. Honor Blackman, Michael Callan, Edward Fox, Wendy Hiller, Olivia Hussey, Betrix Lehmann, Carol Lynley, Daniel Massey, Peter McEnery, AND Wilfrid Hyde-White. Produced by Richard Gordon. Written & directed by Radley Metzger.

   Apparently you can’t go wrong with this title. The original 1927 film is a classic of silent era style and wit; the 1938 version offers a great cast and a star-making turn by Bob Hope; and this version, made by soft-core maven Meztger, has wit, color, and a cast of mostly one-shots and has-beens, shining in the kind of parts they weren’t used to getting.

   TIME OUT: Let me emphasize that the cast is only MOSTLY moth-eaten. Actually, many of them distinguished themselves on the stage, some went on to do interesting work in and out of the movies, and lovable old Wilfrid Hyde-White was always in a world of his own. But the fact is that when this movie was made, there wasn’t enough Hollywood star power between them to light up an “EXIT” sign.

   Yet they are consistently excellent here. Honor Blackman does a perfect Queen Bitch, paired up with Olivia Hussey as her submissive partner. Daniel Massey and Peter McEnery play vigorously off each other as bickering relatives. As the Doctor from the local Insane Asylum, Edward Fox acts nasty enough to make one suspect that the sobriquet “head shrinker” might be literal in his case, while Wendy Hiller and Beatrix Lehmann skulk about in the background as Shady Lawyer and Sinister Housekeeper.

   All of whom are gracefully counterbalanced by Carol Lynley and Michael Callan as the Young Lovers of the piece: She a frightened but sensible heiress; he a hack song-writer, ruefully aware of his insignificance in the scheme of things, but ready to roll the dice with a hostile universe.

   And then there’s Wilfrid Hyde-White as dead Uncle Cyrus, whose presence in the story is a clever ploy, handed off to an actor who carries it charmingly.

   I can attribute the presence of all this talent to Producer/Old-Movie-Buff Richard Gordon, but credit for their classy playing in well-written parts must go to writer-director Radley Metzger, whose stylish porno movies and erotic films of the 60s and 70s are reflected in the elegance of this, his only PG-rated effort. And some day I’d like to hear how he got the job.

   Just in case anyone still wonders what The Cat and the Canary is all about, it has to do with greedy relatives gathered for the reading of the last will & testament of their rich uncle Cyrus. And what happens when they find only one of them will inherit. And what happens when they find out that the putative heiress may be “disqualified.” And what happens when a Homicidal Maniac escapes from a nearby Madhouse. And one damn thing after another.

   That’s what the story’s about. The film is about style, pace, polish and wit, and how they can burnish an old gem like this into a real delight.

THE ROOKIE COP. RKO Radio Pictures, 1939. Tim Holt, Virginia Weidler, Janet Shaw, Frank M. Thomas, Ralf Harolde, Muriel Evans, Ace the Wonder Dog. Director: David Howard.

   Tim Holt, who came up for discussion as a B-western movie star following my review of Sagebrush Law a while back, was only 20 years old when he made this film, and as a rookie cop Clem Maitland, he’s really perfect for the part, since he’s young and eager and as wet behind the ears as they come.

   Although he’s billed first, this film is really built as a showcase for all the clever things Maitland’s dog Ace can do, which I didn’t find all that interesting, but back in 1939, audiences may have enjoyed his tricks a whole lot more. As for me, I was more impressed with the performance of even younger Virginia Weidler, 12 at the time playing a 9-year-old tomboy named Nicey who wants to become a cop herself, when she grows up — and she can hardly wait.

   It’s too bad that with all the screen time Nicey gets, they really didn’t have a lot for her to do. Part of the story has to do with Clem convincing the police chief that dogs can be of great help to a police force, but even though the police chief is the father of his girl friend, he stubbornly can’t see it Clem’s way.

   The other half of the story is nabbing a gang of crooks, which is a whole lot easier than convincing a stubborn police chief to see the light. The end result is competently done, but it’s certainly nothing special.

by Francis M. Nevins

   Two weeks or so after this column is posted I’ll be traveling by Amtrak to the east coast, where on the evening of March 29 I’m giving a talk in New York City at Columbia University’s second annual Dr. Saul and Dorothy Kit Film Noir Festival. Anyone who wants to learn more about this festival should visit its website. (Follow the link.)

   Why was I asked to take part in the program? Because this year the theme is Cornell Woolrich, and in certain quarters I’m rumored to know a bit about that haunted recluse. Just before my talk there will be a screening of BLACK ANGEL (Universal, 1946), which was based on Woolrich’s novel of the same name, and I expect to be concentrating on the relation between the novel and the movie. For the benefit of readers who won’t be able to attend the festival, I’ll cover the same subject here.

   THE BLACK ANGEL (1943) is one of the strongest, strangest and most wrenching of all Woolrich’s novels and the only one narrated throughout in first person by a woman. Superficially it’s a conventional Woman Menaced suspenser but once we crack its thin surface we’re in the jolting nightworld that is Woolrich’s private domain, and locked inside the mind and heart of one of his most twisted people.

   Like most Woolrich novels, it reminds us of other novels of his. It shares with PHANTOM LADY (1942) the race against the clock to save an innocent man convicted of murder, but this time it’s the man’s girlfriend not his wife who’s been killed, and it’s his wife who risks everything to save him from the chair.

   Like THE BRIDE WORE BLACK (1940) it consists of a series of disconnected episodes with a tormented psychotic woman entering the lives of various men and devastating each in a different way. The angel of the title is Alberta French Murray, whose husband Kirk has taken up with nightclub entertainer Mia Mercer. Finding Kirk’s packed suitcase hidden in a closet, and knowing what until now she had only feared, she forces herself to go to Mia’s lavish Sutton Place apartment and beg for her man back.

   She finds the entrance door unlocked and Mia on the bedroom floor, smothered to death with a pillow. At that moment Mia’s phone rings. Alberta in a panic lifts the receiver to shut off the sound, hears Kirk’s voice on the other end, and hangs up without a word. Convinced that Kirk is innocent and frantic to protect him, Alberta steals Mia’s address book from the apartment. On the way out she notices and also takes with her a match folder, monogrammed with the letter M, which she finds wedged in the seam of the entrance door, apparently by the real murderer, who visited Mia openly once and then sneaked back to kill her.

   Alberta doesn’t report the murder to the police and doesn’t even think to call Kirk at his office and tell him Mia’s dead until it’s too late and he’s on his way to her place. The next time she sees her husband he’s handcuffed to a cynical cop named Flood and under arrest for Mia’s murder.

   A few pages later, thanks to the legally challenged Woolrich having wisely spared us a trial scene, he’s awaiting execution. While he’s sitting in the death house, she goes through his belongings, which the police have returned to her, and discovers that the monogrammed match folder she took from Mia’s apartment doesn’t belong to Mia herself. Therefore she concludes at once — and the intensity of Woolrich’s prose makes it easy for us to forget that her reasoning is ridiculous — that the real murderer must be one of the four names on the M page of Mia’s address book.

   She goes to Flood, who doesn’t send out underlings to check whether any of the four M’s uses monogrammed match folders but agrees to backstop Alberta’s crazy and time-intensive plan: to enter the life of each M in turn and try to pin the murder on him.

   For the rest of the novel we are with her and inside her as she carries out her mission. The first M is Martin Blair, a hopeless alcoholic into whose wretched life she insinuates herself until he commits suicide. Does she blame herself? “No, I was kind to him. I gave him something to die for…. It is better to die for something than to live for nothing.”

   The second M is Mordaunt, a foul-smelling doctor with a sideline of pushing narcotics, who soon takes her into his operation as a delivery person. This episode is full of suspense and anguish but Mordaunt never rises above the pulp monster level.

   Alberta emerges from the nightmare intact and with proof that the doctor isn’t the man she’s after. M3 is wealthy bon vivant Ladd Mason, whom Alberta entices into a relationship, then has Flood set up a hidden dictaphone device in her apartment to preserve any damning admission Mason might let slip. Eventually he admits that he’d visited Mia on the day of her death and found her body on the floor.

   She leaves him asleep in her apartment and goes on to her fourth quest, a man named McKee, a gambler-gangster-nightclub owner of a sort familiar from many pulp stories by Woolrich and countless others.

   Auditioning for and landing a spot in his club’s chorus line, she is soon installed in his Central Park West penthouse. She induces him to give her the combination to his safe and, at the earliest opportunity, opens it to hunt for evidence of his connection with Mia Mercer, but is caught by his goons and taken out to be executed.

   There’s no need to describe the rest of the novel, which ends with our black angel torn by love for one who is dead, shattered inside as she had shattered others, executioner and victim in one flesh.


   Fred Dannay once said of Woolrich that his “driving narrative power…carries readers on the crest of a tidal wave, and they are equally oblivious of the long arm of coincidence and the long arm of incredibility” when immersed in his fiction even though there “might be a hole in the plot structure that would destroy an ordinary story.”

   That is an inspired description of the raw material that the makers of the movie BLACK ANGEL (Universal, 1946) had to contend with: a wrenching, bizarre episodic novel whose protagonist’s obsessions grow to madness as she ruins others and herself to save her man from Mister Death.

   The film was directed and co-produced by British-born Roy William Neill (1886-1946), an industry old-timer fondly remembered for his Sherlock Holmes series with Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce. He and screenwriter Roy Chanslor took on the jobs of tightening the novel’s structure, reducing the number of male characters, making the female lead more sympathetic, and at the same time preserving the Woolrich qualities of suspense and emotional anguish. A tall order!

   June Vincent starred as Catherine Bennett and Dan Duryea as the alcoholic pianist Martin Blair, who is an amalgam of Woolrich’s Martin Blair and his haunted socialite Ladd Mason. The Dr. Mordaunt episode was scrapped, and in the movie the M-monogrammed matchbook leads the black angel not to several men as in the book but only one, nightclub owner Marko (Peter Lorre), who more or less corresponds to Woolrich’s love-struck gambler McKee.

   Vincent’s Catherine Bennett doesn’t carry out her quest alone as Woolrich’s black angel did but is joined by Duryea’s Marty Blair character. Although Woolrich’s Marty kills himself after his brief encounter with the angel, Duryea not only lives through the movie but is recovering from his alcoholism by the fadeout. Duryea falls in love with Vincent somewhat as Ladd Mason had with Woolrich’s protagonist but in the movie she doesn’t return his love but stays loyal to her convicted and unfaithful husband.

   Yet despite these changes and many more, every frame of this fine film noir is permeated with the Woolrich spirit, Neill and his cinematographer Paul Ivano investing every shot with a visual style that translates the novel into film with total fidelity to its soul and precious little to its literal text. It was Roy William Neill’s finest film, and his last.


   In November 1965, less than two years before his own death, Basil Rathbone in a talk before a group of Sherlock Holmes fans described how the director of so many Holmes movies and of BLACK ANGEL had died. Late in 1946, Rathbone said, he was appearing on Broadway in a production of THE HEIRESS.

   “One night to the theatre came dear little Roy Neill. We loved him. We called him Mousie. He was a little guy and as sweet as they come, though a damn good disciplinarian….[W]e didn’t disobey orders and we were always on time and we always knew our lines….There came to my dressing room, in a gray flannel suit and a white carnation, little Roy Neill. And he was going home, which was Maidenhead on the Thames, in England, for the first time in…something like fifteen-odd years….[He] took the keys out of his pocket, and he showed me one and said to me: ‘….That opens the door to my home at Maidenhead on the Thames.’ And he had had a housekeeper stay there for all this time, waiting for this wonderful moment when, after making substantial money, he was able now to go home and enjoy his life on the river Thames. And he boarded the ship, and—I only learned this later—and he arrived, and he went to Maidenhead, and he put the key into the front door, he turned it, and walked into the hall of his home, and dropped dead.”

   According to the brief New York Times obituary on Neill, the 59-year-old director had died of a heart attack in the London home of a nephew. But if Rathbone wasn’t embellishing the facts for the sake of a good anecdote, what a Woolrich-like death for the man who had just made what up to that time was the finest Woolrich-based film!


   Woolrich himself thought the picture a disaster. Early in 1947 he received a letter in which the poet and scholar Mark Van Doren, who had been one of his professors when he was an undergraduate at Columbia, mentioned having recently seen the movie.

   Woolrich then went to see the picture at a neighborhood theater. “I was so ashamed when I came out of there,” he wrote Van Doren on February 2. “All I could keep thinking of in the dark was: Is that what I wasted my whole life at?”

   Keeping in mind how radically the movie altered his novel, one can understand Woolrich’s point of view. Perhaps those who are there for the screening and my comments later this month will understand too.

   But that doesn’t mean he was right. For my money, if a single theatrical feature based on a Woolrich novel (as opposed to the features based on shorter work like Hitchcock’s REAR WINDOW) could be preserved for future generations and all the rest had to be destroyed, BLACK ANGEL is the one I would opt to keep.

PLEASE MURDER ME!. Distributors Corporation of America, 1956. Angela Lansbury, Raymond Burr, Dick Foran, John Dehner, Lamont Johnson. Director: Peter Godfrey.

   Before his role of a lifetime came along as TV’s Perry Mason, Raymond Burr did not have many leading roles in the movies, but here he is in Please Murder Me! as the second billed actor. I have no idea if this is the case, but it’s fun to speculate: If the people who were in charge of casting the role of Mason happened to have seen this movie, they would have said “He’s our guy!,” and signed him up on the spot.

   He plays a lawyer in this one, if you hadn’t realized that already, but with a twist. His client is the woman he is in love with (Angela Lansbury), and she is charged with having killed her husband. She claims it was in self-defense, but the D.A. (John Dehner) is making an awfully good case that it was premeditated murder, when Burr’s character makes a confession that turns everything upside down.

   It has already been established to the viewer that the dead man was Burr’s best friend, but the friendship has been permanently ruined when Burr tells the husband that he has fallen in love with his wife, and that he will be representing her in terms of a divorce.

   This is not as complicated as perhaps I have made it sound, or maybe it is. It is the basis for a very good movie, one that I can definitely recommend. It really ought to have an official release.

   While I could not discern any particular chemistry between Burr and Angela Lansbury, they are both well chosen for their respective roles. Before making this film Burr usually played villains, and if I say heavies, he was, but he had definitely slimmed down by the time he appeared in this one.

   A late entry noir — take a look at the opening scenes, at least, from the copy embedded above from YouTube — and one worth watching.


MURDER IN THE PRIVATE CAR MGM, 1934. Charlie Ruggles, Una Merkel, Mary Carlisle, Russell Hardie, Porter Hall, Burton Churchill — and Ray Corrigan as Naba the Gorilla. Screenplay by Ralph Spence, Edgar Allen Woolf, Al Boasberg, and Harvey Thew, from a play by Edward E. Rose. Directed by Harry Beaumont.

   If you only watch one movie in your entire life, it should be Murder in the Private Car.

   Charming Charlie Ruggles, in a rare star turn, plays Godfrey D. Scott, Crime Deflector (i.e., he deflects crimes before they happen). Scott, in his own off-hand way, involves himself with the case of Ruth Raymond (Carlisle) who has recently been identified as a missing heiress and subject to all sorts of dire attempts, especially since she boarded the private car of an eastbound train to meet her father (Churchill) along with her friend and former co-worker Una Merkel.

   Ah yes, Una Merkel, an over-underrated actress normally stuck in supporting roles as the heroine’s best friend. Here she plays… well, she plays the heroine’s best friend again, but in this case the part is a co-starring one as she sneaks zingers at Charlie Ruggles and looks amusingly askance at his bumbling antics. Indeed the two of them play off each other so well, I wonder no one thought to co-star them in a series.

   Car doesn’t give them much time for witty repartee, though. Not with a plot that moves like an express train (sorry!) once the principals get on board the private car, only to find one peril after another hurled at them as fast as Charlie can deflect: A kidnapping attempt, secret passages, hands clutching in the dark, threatening notes and sinister whispers, a murder or two, and an escaped Gorilla just to liven things up a bit.

   I’m not familiar with the original play this was based upon, but knowing the work of Ralph Spence as I do, I’m sore tempted to attribute the sliding panels and gorilla to him, and I think anyone who’s seen any version of The Gorilla will agree. And I’ll wrestle anyone in the crowd who says it ain’t. Any takers? I thought not!

   Getting back to the movie, it chugs along nicely to a marvelous climax with the principal characters trapped in a runaway car filled with nitroglycerine hurtling down the tracks toward the approaching Westbound Express (The folks at MGM knew how to pile it on.) a sequence done in obvious back-projection, but done so well I found myself gasping, jumping, and laughing with relief at the climax.

    Murder in the Private Car lacks the star power to make it remembered much these days, but it’s a film that once seen & enjoyed, will not be forgotten.

   Particularly if, as I say, it’s the only film you ever see in your entire life.


DOROTHY B. HUGHES – The Fallen Sparrow. Duell, Sloan & Pearce, hardcover, 1942. Paperback editions include: Dell #31, mapback edition, 1943 or 1944; Bantam, 1970/1979; Carroll & Graf, 1988.

THE FALLEN SPARROW. RKO, 1943. John Garfield, Maureen O’Hara, Walter Slezak, Patricia Morison, John Banner, John Miljan, Hugh Beaumont. Screenplay by Warren Duff. Directed by Richard Wallace.

   I’ve long been impressed by Dorothy B. Hughes’ ability to put the reader into the head of her protagonists while writing in the third person. In a Lonely Place featured a murderous sociopath; here it’s a paranoid who really is being persecuted, but in both cases we follow a narrative in which we’re not always quite sure of what is actually happening to the central character . Or if we can trust that he’s reading it right

   Sparrow opens two years before the story proper starts. Kit McKitrick, young, rich and idealistic, joined the International Brigade to fight Facism in Spain. As things fell apart he snatched some valuable relics from a looter, then spent two year in a prison cell being tortured to give up their whereabouts. His most vivid memory of that time is the periodic visits of a man he never saw… a limping man from Berlin, whose arrival always brought on new and more painful torment.

   Then we switch to New York City in Wartime, with Kit returned to his Park Avenue crowd, thanks to an escape engineered (he thinks) by a longtime cop-pal who plunged to his death from a window while Kit was recuperating out West. The papers say it was accident or suicide, Kit knows it was murder.

   This forms the springboard for a perfectly crafted tale of murder and subversion among the Smart Set, as Kit’s mission of detection becomes a journey of discovery that uncovers some troubling truths about the people he once called friends – and about himself.

   Hughes builds suspense with some clever twists: Kit starts hearing the limping man from Berlin here in New York — or does he? Then he learns that his captors engineered his “escape” from Spain as a ploy to get him to lead them to the relics. Or did they? And suddenly, in his mind (and ours?) he is as much hunter as hunted.

   When RKO filmed this the next year they wisely did it in early-noir style, with a few nods to The Maltese Falcon (1941) spiced up with expressionist lighting and oppressive camera angles. This being wartime, there are a couple of patriotic speeches about Why We Fight, but by and large the emphasis is on McKitrcick’s fragile sanity.

   Producer Robert Fellows (Hondo, The Screaming Mimi, Ring of Fear, etc.) casts this perfectly, with a trio of femmes fatales that includes Maureen O’Hara (icily coiffed and made up in an Audrey Totter look) Patricia Morision and Martha O’Driscoll. John Banner, Erford Gage and Hugh Beaumont skulk around nicely in the background under the sinister supervision of Walter Slezak as a wheelchair-bound (or is he?) aristocrat with an interest in torture and the Borgias, chewing the scenery with voracious relish.

   And best of all, there’s John Garfield, that edgiest of leading men, as the half-crazy hero of the piece. Nobody could convey angst like Garfield, and he sinks into the role wonderfully, veering from manic energy to desperation with a tic of the cheek. He even seems to sweat on cue!

   Scenarist Warren Duff (who produced Out of the Past) streamlines Hughes’ book quite well, shortcutting past some of the novel’s digressions and wisely letting the actors convey their characters’ complexities. The result is a film that brings the book to life and makes it pure Cinema — and a fun movie to watch.

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