Mystery movies

DEAD MEN DON’T WEAR PLAID. Universal Pictures, 1982. Steve Martin, Rachel Ward, Carl Reiner, Reni Santoni. In archival footage: Ingrid Bergman, Humphrey Bogart, James Cagney, Joan Crawford, Bette Davis, Brian Donlevy, Kirk Douglas, Ava Gardner, Cary Grant, Alan Ladd, Veronica Lake, Burt Lancaster, Charles Laughton, Fred MacMurray, Ray Milland, Edmond O’Brien, Vincent Price, Barbara Stanwyck, Lana Turner and more. Screenplay: Carl Reiner, George Gipe & Steve Martin. Director: Carl Reiner.

   Laughter is contagious. Watching a comedy film in a theater with a few hundred other people is one thing. Even if the comedy is not so hot, if one person starts laughing at a scene, no matter how lame it is, you may find yourself laughing too. You can’t help yourself.

   It’s why the TV networks came up with the idea of laugh tracks, and that was a long time ago.

   Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid is another kettle of fish altogether. I watched this one on DVD with only one other person watching with me, and I found myself laughing out loud any number of times. I couldn’t help myself. This does not happen often.

   I can’t say that this would happen to everyone. Some people can’t watch black and white movies. I can understand that. It’s difficult for me to watch silent movies. Some people don’t care for noir movies from the 40s. That I don’t understand, but there’s no accounting for tastes.

   Steve Martin plays a 1940s Sam Spade kind of private eye in this one, a guy named Rigby Reardon, and he’s hired by a beautiful dame (Ranchel Ward) who hires him to investigate the reported death of her father in a car accident along a deserted mountain highway. From that point on, there’s no real need to explain what happens (because I can’t), but surprisingly enough, I’m willing to wager that it actually makes sense.

   For what is interspersed with the case that Rigby Reardon is working on are archival clips from maybe a dozen film noir movies from the 40s, sliced in perfectly to not only move the story along but to also fit in as smooth as silk with whatever comic antics Steve Martin is doing on screen, including voice-over narration.

   I’m sure all of you know this already, and each of you has your own personal favorite scenes. But speaking personally, if I may, I think this film is a work of genius, and if by chance you have never seen it but you have read this far into the review, you absolutely should. See it, that is. Don’t deprive yourself any longer.

  CASTLE IN THE DESERT. 20th Century Fox, 1942. Sidney Toler, Arleen Whelan, Richard Derr, Douglass Dumbrille, [Victor] Sen Yung. Based on the character created by Earl Derr Biggers. Director: Harry Lachman.

    A Charlie Chan movie, as you may have guessed, and the last done by 20th Century Fox. It takes place, not surprisingly, in an isolated castle in the desert, 35 miles from civilization. Its owner is a medieval historian who insists on doing his research in authentic surroundings, complete with working dungeon.

    What’s more is that his wife, as it turns out, is a descendant of the notorious Borgia family, and when guests begin mysteriously dying, Charlie is brought in. Lots of mysterious events also then begin to happen, but none of them of a substantial sort. Still, this film does contain one of my favorite sayings, even though Charlie himself didn’t come up wth it. Blame this one on his Number Two son:

    “Man who sit on tack better off.”

— Reprinted from Mystery*File #24,, August 1990. (very slightly revised).

Note:   Dan Stumpf has also reviewed the film on this blog. Check out his comments here.


A MATTER OF WHO. MGM, UK, 1961; US, 1962. Terry-Thomas, Sonja Zeimann, Alex Nichol, Richard Briers (debut), Honor Blackman, Carol White, Guy Deghy, Martin Benson, Geoffrey Keen. Screenplay by Milton Homes & Patricia Lee, based on her article with Paul Dickinson. Directed by Don Chaffey.

   This unlikely comedy-mystery builds up real suspense with Terry-Thomas playing mostly straight as an eccentric British ‘germ’ detective for WHO, the World Health Organization.

   It begins innocently enough with an American businessman apparently succumbing to too much alcohol on his honeymoon flight to London. Taken to the hospital at Heathrow until the cause of his condition can be determined, his new bride (Sonja Zeimann) and business partner, a fellow Texas oilman (Alex Nichol), meet each other and Archibald Bannister (Terry-Thomas) a representative of WHO while waiting for news of the ailing man.

   When it turns out smallpox and not alcohol is the cause of the ailing oilman’s ill turn, the international WHO organization is mobilized, with British representative Bannister and his assistant (Richard Briers, best remembered for the series Good Neighbors, making his film debut) out to find where the victim acquired the disease and using every means at their disposal to do it.

   That proves more than a little dangerous for both Bannister and the victim’s business partner, as international politics, skullduggery in the cutthroat oil business, the mysterious new bride who knows something she won’t tell, a smuggled dog, a kidnapped corpse, a remote Austrian village stricken with a smallpox epidemic, Bannister a fugitive from the law, and a shady international playboy are all added to the mix until the climax in an Austrian cable car.

   The mystery is excellent, the twists frequent, the heroes meet numerous setbacks, and the comedy is generally played quietly arising from the situation and the people in it and not contrived silliness (there is a contrived car chase).

   Other than his bad driving, clothes, and car, Bannister is presented as a good man who knows his job and does it with rare skill. You likely haven’t seen Thomas like this in a film, and may, like me, be a little surprised how well he handles the role without resorting to his usual schtick.

   This one works fully on all levels. It is sexy and smart, sharply written and played, well directed by Don Chaffey, and both the mystery and suspense well served, both they and the clues arising from the nature of the real criminal, the disease smallpox, and its nature and behavior. And don’t assume you have out-guessed it or Bannister, as both have surprises up their sleeves right to the end.

   I spent a long time looking for this one, and I’m pleased to say than other than the theme song, it was no disappointment. A Matter of WHO is a fine little film with a first class cast and more than enough to keep you glued to your seat until the last clue is sorted.

by Francis M. Nevins

   Ever heard of Stanislas-André Steeman? Thought not. In Anglo-American crime fiction his name is all but unknown, but in Europe and especially France he’s considered one of the most important exponents of the roman policier. Like his far better known older contemporary Georges Simenon, he was Belgian by birth, born in Liège in 1908, five years after the creator of Maigret.

   Simenon launched the Maigret series early in life, but Steeman’s first books, written in collaboration with Hermann Sartini (whose nom de plume was Sintair) were published in 1928, a year before the first Maigrets and when Steeman was 20 years old at most, maybe even 19. After five novels the partnership broke up, and from then on Steeman was on his own, turning out more than 30 policiers before his death in 1970 at age 62.

   Only two of his novels made it across the Atlantic, with the 1931 SIX HOMMES MORTS translated (by the wife of poet Stephen Vincent Benét) as SIX DEAD MEN (Farrar & Rinehart, 1932) and 1932’s LA NUIT DU 12 AU 13 appearing in English as THE NIGHT OF THE 12th-13th (Lippincott, 1933). After that he became a nonentity in English but he was already a celebrity in France, having won the Grand Prix du Roman d’Aventures for SIX HOMMES MORTS.

   Steeman’s principal detective character was Inspector Wenceslas Vorobeitchik (the Russian word for sparrow), usually called Monsieur Wens, but on the basis of what I’ve found on the Web, it’s impossible to determine how many of Steeman’s novels he appeared in. Most of what we in the U.S. know about his work we owe to Xavier Lechard’s superlative “At the Villa Rose” website, which I highly recommend. Lechard calls Steeman “one of the greatest authors of the French Golden Age, and arguably one of the greatest mystery writers of all times….”

   Unlike Simenon, whose goal was to go beyond the conventions of classical detective fiction, Steeman loved them and loved even more to play with them. SIX DEAD MEN for example is a Tontine story of the sort we tend to associate with Ellery Queen. The fatal six agree that whoever outlives the others will inherit most of the men’s money, then the group starts dying off.

   A few years after its appearance in English translation, this novel was the basis of a low-budget “quota quickie” movie, THE RIVERSIDE MURDER (Fox British, 1935), directed by Albert Parker, with Basil Sydney starring as Inspector Philip Winton (obviously the Brit counterpart of Monsieur Wens) and, in one of his earliest film roles, Alastair Sim playing his sergeant. Featured in the cast are Ian Fleming (no, not that Ian Fleming) and Tom Helmore, who more than twenty years later played the Iago figure in Hitchcock’s VERTIGO.

   Thanks to my friend Tony Williams and his forthcoming essay on French film noir during the years of Nazi occupation, I know more about Steeman’s involvement with the movie industry of his adopted country than can be learned on the Web.

   The French version of the same Steeman novel, LE DERNIER DES SIX (1941) was directed by Georges Lacombe from a screenplay by Henri-Georges Clouzot (1907-1977), who went on to become a director himself and indeed to become celebrated as the Hitchcock of France. I don’t know whether the Monsieur Wens of Steeman’s novel or the Inspector Winton of the 1935 British film had a sex partner, but in this version as played by Pierre Fresnay he has a mistress, portrayed by Suzy Delair, who was Clouzot’s mistress at the time, and according to Tony Williams, the pair operate as a sort of Nick-and-Nora couple.

   The movie must have been a hit with French audiences of the Occupation era, for it was soon followed up by Clouzot’s first film as a director, L’ASSASSIN HABITE AU 21 (1942), again starring Fresnay and Delair and with a screenplay by Clouzot and Steeman, whose 1939 novel of the same name was never translated into English, but it takes place in London and involves a serial killer who murders his victims in the fog, leaving behind a calling card in the name of “Mr. Smith.”

   Since England in 1942 was at war with the Nazis, Clouzot inserted Fresnay and Delair from LE DERNIER DES SIX as Wens and his mistress Mila Malou and shifted the locale to France and the killer’s nom de guerre to Monsieur Durand. According to Tony Williams, the serial killer in the film turns out to be three men, former schoolmates each of whom believes himself to be a sort of Raskolnikov.

   At the end of the film, says Williams, “all three master criminals have their hands in the air when they are surrounded by the police.” Wens stands opposite the ringleader of the three and, in order to strike a match on his neck, has him lower his right hand, while his left remains in the air as if he’s giving the traditional Nazi salute. How could Hitler’s censors have missed this zinger? If L’ASSASSIN sounds like a serious film noir, Williams insists that this time Fresnay and Delair form “an even more excessive screwball comedic partnership” than in LE DERNIER DES SIX.

   The end of World War II did not end the connection between Steeman and Clouzot. The only new Steeman novel published during the war had been LEGITIME DEFENSE (1942). A few years after the liberation of France, Clouzot took this novel as the basis for his film QUAI DES ORFEVRES (1947), which Xavier Lechard describes as “arguably the best adaptation of Steeman’s work and one of the summits of French cinema.”

   Steeman wasn’t pleased with the result, principally because Clouzot “changed the guilty party….” Having worked on the screenplay, perhaps he was better satisfied with MYSTERE A SHANGHAI (1950), directed by Roger Blanc and based on the second and last Steeman novel to be translated into English, LA NUIT DE 12 AU 13.

   Steeman continued to write crime novels until his death but apparently they were far removed from his earlier books. Monsieur Wens returned in POKER D’ENFER (HELL’S POKER, 1955) and SIX HOMMES À TUER (SIX MEN TO KILL, 1956) but as a sort of shape-shifter, with the principal puzzle being which character in the story is he. Steeman’s final novel, AUTOPSIE D’UN VIOL (AUTOPSY OF A RAPE, 1971), is described by Lechard as “a courtroom mystery set in the United States” and displaying “a grim worldview with none of the author’s previous flippantness.”

   Although I’ve read a lot of Simenon and most of the Swedish team of Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö and some of Friedrich Duerrenmatt and a few others, most of the mysteries I’ve consumed in the 60-odd years since I discovered Sherlock Holmes and Charlie Chan have been written in English. I’ve never read Steeman but what I’ve learned about him while researching this column leads me to think I might have missed a bet. Perhaps we all have.


THE SMILING GHOST. Warner Brothers, 1941. Wayne Morris, Brenda Marshall, Alexis Smith, Willie Best, Alan Hale, David Bruce. Written by Kenneth Gamet and Stuart Palmer. Directed by Lewis Seiler.

   A recent review here of Secret of the Blue Room (1933) got me wondering: Universal used this story again in 1938 (The Missing Guest) and 1944 (Murder in the Blue Room). So how did it turn up at Warners in 1941?

   In all fairness, Ghost takes a wholly different comic approach to the story and introduces characters not found in any blue room — some of them rather well-realized — but when we get to the series of murdered fiancés and the eventual solution, we are on very familiar ground indeed.

   Wayne Morris starts the film as an impecunious engineer looking for any sort of job, who hires on to be engaged to Alexis Smith for a month, unaware that each of her previous fiancés has met a horrible fate. By the time he’s wised up by reporter Brenda Marshall he has narrowly escaped murder at the hands of the eponymous ghoul .

   Okay, never mind the improbability of this guy getting a scientific degree and having two intelligent women fall in love with him. They do it for the sake of the plot, so let’s just get on with the skulking shadows, eyes peering through secret passages, brushes with death and all the rest of it.

   The proceedings are enlivened considerably by subsidiary characters like Charles Halton as an eccentric uncle who collects shrunken heads, and especially by Alan Hale as a detective posing none-too-convincingly as a butler. Lewis Seiler directs without distinction but he keeps things moving, and the rest of the cast are the usual Warners reliables, with everyone pitching in to keep things going efficiently and forgettably.

   But I still can’t figure out how writers Gamet and Palmer passed this off as their own…..


Editorial Comment:   Walter Albert has also reviewed this film for this blog, nearly six years ago. Check it out here.

  SECRET OF THE BLUE ROOM. Universal Pictures, 1933. Lionel Atwill, Gloria Stuart, Paul Lukas, Edward Arnold, Onslow Stevens, William Janney, Robert Barrat, Elizabeth Patterson. Producer: Carl Laemmle Jr. Director: Kurt Neumann.

   It was a dark and stormy night. No, really. The clock strikes midnight, and four men wish Irene von Helldorf (Gloria Stuart) a happy birthday. One of the men is her father (Lional Atwill), the others are apparent suitors, one of whom, Tommy Brandt (William Janney), the youngest and brashest proposes.

   Irene puts him off, smilingly, and goes to join the others, where the conversation turns to the castle-like manor’s Blue Room, in which three mysterious deaths have occurred.

   The room has been shut up and locked tight ever since, but Tommy proposes that the three suitors sleep there overnight, on three successive nights. To show his bravery, he volunteers to go first.

   The next day the room is found empty, locked from the inside, but the window is open. Down below is a deep moat. What happened to Tommy? No trace of him can be found.

   This is the kind of movie that lives in its own fantasy world, one in which the police are not called in until they find Tommy’s body, which they don’t. And yet, on its own terms, the rules of what to do in an emergency are consistent and make sense.

   Of course, when one of the other suitors is found shot to death the next night, quite possibly a suicide, the police, in the form of Commissioner Forster (Edward Arnold), do have be called in, albeit reluctantly so.

   Lots of atmosphere in this one, with an excellent cast to go along with the fun, which this one is, in spite of the non-reality of it all.

Note:   This was a remake of a German film Geheimnis des blauen Zimmers, made a year earlier. Universal’s 1938 film The Missing Guest is based on the same source, and so is their film Murder in the Blue Room, from 1944. (Thanks to the AFI website for the info.)


SHERLOCK HOLMES IN CHINA. Beijing Film Studio, 1994. Original title: Fu er mo si yu zhong guo nu xia. Also released as Sherlock Holmes and the Chinese Heroine. Wang Chi, Hanson, Alex Vanderpor, Zongquah Xu. Directed by Wang Chi and Yunzhou Liu.

   Don’t expect me to decipher the version I saw of this since it was in Chinese with Chinese subtitles, but basically the title says it all, Sherlock Holmes (Alex Vanderpor) and Watson (Zongquah Xu) are in 19th Century China on a case that of course involves Kung Fu and quite a bit of broad comedy at Holmes’s expense as a fish out of water, though still Sherlockian.

   Holmes’s attempt at disguise as a tall gray eyed Chinese replete with pigtail is a major disaster as he and Watson duck out of a brawl that turns into an opportunity of director/star Wang Chi to show his fighting skills, but the real highlight of the film is when Holmes takes on a Kung Fu master with his own brand of Violin Fu — who knew the Japanese art of baritsu involved defeating your enemy with nothing but a bow and violin?

   There is some sort of a case involved and a master criminal of sorts with Kung Fu skills, but that’s about all I could make out.

   Vanderpor, wearing a black suit and stove pipe hat, who looks more as if he is trying out for Abe Lincoln than Sherlock Holmes, manages not to be too embarrassing, but there is no way this film is anything but a curiosity of the first order for Holmesians everywhere.

   Desperate Holmes fans can find this on YouTube, or view it below, if you must. If nothing else it proves Holmes is universal if not always translatable.


THIS MAN IS NEWS. 1938. Barry Barnes, Valerie Hobson, Alistair Sim, John Warwick, Philip Leaven, Edward Loxy, Garry Marsh. Screenplay by Ranald MacDougal, Basil Deardon, and Allan MacKinnon. Directed by David MacDonald.

   In the last few weeks I have found a good half dozen of a list of films I have been seeking since William Everson came out with The Detective in Film, lo those many years ago, and this one has long been near the top of my list, so don’t expect too much critical reserve. I was to happy to finally see it.

   The film was a massive hit in England when it came out, a British Thin Man with Barry Barnes and Valerie Hobson their very own Nick and Nora, Simon and Pat Drake. In addition, it is a fast moving, smart mouthed, and well plotted mystery thriller filled with wise cracks and action, and more than ably abetted by the presence of Alistair Sim as Macgregor, a Scottish editor for a London paper, whose brogue is as thick as his temper is short and his skull bald.

   Sim could steal any film, and comes close a few times here, but Barnes and Hobson really do shine as Simon and Pat.

   When Simon skips his assignment to cover the release of Brown, an informer who is on the hit list for betraying his gang, Macgregor blows his lid and fires him (again, it’s a running gag). Returning home his wife Pat is a pal and takes it well, even to the point of breaking out the champagne and going on a toot.

   They could give Nick and Nora, the Norths, and Duluths a race in that department.

   In the course of the evening Simon has a bright idea and calls up Macgregor claiming he is outside of Brown’s hideout, which he followed him to the day before, where Brown has just been murdered, accompanied by Pat popping a champagne cork he explains as his having just been shot by the gang. He then hangs up, his revenge complete.

   The hangover the next day is complete too when he sees the false headlines. He’s the hero of the day, for the moment, especially when, to his relief, it turns out Brown really was murdered by the gang. But the cloud proves to be minus any silver lining when Inspector Hollis and Sgt. Bright (Edward Loxy and Garry Marsh) show up to arrest him.

   Seems he called in the murder ninety minutes before it happened.

   And he’s fired again.

   Until Brown’s relative is shot in Simon’s apartment just after Pat alibis him out of jail.

   He’s free, but someone is trying to kill him. There is an informer at the paper keeping the mob tipped off to Simon’s movement, and Simon can’t recall what he might have seen that is worth killing him for. Worse he’s stuck with Hollis and the none too bright Bright.

   Pat proves somewhat more active and capable than Nora Charles, and is nearly killed herself when she sets their apartment on fire to frighten off the two men waiting to kill Simon, and things get even more complex when it turns out the man Simon saw is the notorious ‘Harelip’ Murphy (Philip Leaven) who we have only seen from the nose down as the mastermind who enjoys white mice scampering from his pockets (someone read their Wilkie Collins, shades of Count Fosco).

   The thrills and spills are reminiscent of a radio serial despite this being an original screenplay, and no, it can’t compare with MGM and William Powell and Myrna Loy, but it is fast, smart, furious, and witty in the proper proportions and comes to a bang-up finale in the newsroom when Simon finally gets the killers, his job back, and his by-line — This Man is News.

   A sequel followed the next year, This Man in Paris. IMDb says it isn’t as good as the first, but I hope eventually to see for myself. Meanwhile This Man is News is available on YouTube in a decent print.

   It’s a fast-paced fun outing less dated than most, thanks to a clever script and a sure hand by the director, the screwball comedy mystery British style.

   Love it or hate it, you can’t say it ever drags.

THE MURDER OF DR. HARRIGAN. Warner Brothers, 1936. Clue Club #6. Ricardo Cortez, Kay Linaker, John Eldredge, Mary Astor, Joseph Crehan. Based on the novel From This Dark Stairway, by Mignon G. Eberhart. Director: Frank McDonald.

   Murder in a hospital has always been a staple of detective fiction, but perhaps even more so in the Golden Age of Detection, and here’s a prime example. Even before Dr. Harrigan’s body in found in a jammed elevator, there are all kinds of signs that this is a hospital to stay out of, no matter how sick you are.

   Doctors light up cigarettes wills-nilly, for example, no matter where they are in the building, patients get up and wander around, including to each other’s rooms. Even worse, the sick man that Dr. Harrigan was going to operate on — and was last seen wheeling down the hall to an operating room — in a suit and tie yet — has completely disappeared. He’s nowhere in the building.

   In the book, the detective of record is Sarah Keate, a nurse who was in seven of Mignon Eberhart’s novels, the last one appearing in 1954. In the movie, though, renamed Sally Keating (Kay Linaker), she doesn’t really do any detective work.

   That’s left to the police and her would-be boy friend, Dr. Lambert (Ricardo Cortez) — he seems a lot more interested in marrying her than she is the other way around — and there are plenty of suspects to choose from, whether doctors, other nurses, patients, family members of all of the above, all acting very mysteriously.

   Unfortunately, there’s no particular reason for picking on the actual killer to be the killer. I’m willing to wager that the book was a whole lot better in this regard. You watch the movie for non-stop action and banter, not for niceties of clues and actual detective work.

PostScript:   The TCM website says that “Some of the other titles bearing the Clue Club stamp are The Florentine Dagger (1935), While the Patient Slept (1935), The White Cockatoo (1935), The Case of the Velvet Claws (1936) and The Case of the Black Cat (1936).”

NINE LIVES ARE NOT ENOUGH. Warner Brothers, 1941. Ronald Reagan, Joan Perry, James Gleason, Howard da Silva, Faye Emerson , Edward Brophy, Peter Whitney, Charles Drake. Based on the novel by Jerome Odlum. Director: A. Edward Sutherland.

   You can call me confused if you want, but the leading character in this film is a brash young reporter named Matt Sawyer, while the Kirkus review for the book says the reporter’s name is Johnny O’Sullivan, and Al Hubin in Crime Fiction IV says the leading character is somebody called John Steele, a fellow that in a review Kirkus did of another of Odlum’s books they call a PI. There is no PI in the movie.

   No matter. Maybe someone can straighten me out on this, even though Jerome Odlum as a mystery writer is all but unknown today. I’ll stick to the film in the rest of the review, and I’ll bet you’ve already matched a young brash Ronald Reagan with the Matt Sawyer fellow I mentioned up there in the first paragraph.

   Sawyer is the kind of guy who when he calls in a story he gets a small detail wrong, and when the detail (murder vs suicide) somehow gets into the headline of the paper he’s working for, it doesn’t make his editor (Howard da Silva) very happy at all.

   Sawyer does have a point, however. The dead man is supposed to have shot himself, but the body is found with his hands in his pockets. But what is the coroner to think when the door is locked and the windows shut tight? It has to be suicide.

   Sawyer has to depend on to a pair of agreeable cops (one of whom is played of course by James Gleason) to help him out of the jam he’s in. That he also falls immediately in love with the dead man’s daughter (Joan Perry) causes some complications.

   Much of the film is played for laughs. The second cop always seems to have his tongue hanging out for his next cold brew, for example, and Peter Whitney (his film debut) plays a hulk of a boy-man with limited (shall we say) mental capabilities.

   As always seems the case in movies like this, the first half plays better than the second. When the producer and director are forced to realize that they also have to solve the case, they also start to get serious. Well, at least a little. They can always fill in any gaps in the plot with a lot of action. They locked room aspect, for example, is covered in one throwaway line. Blink for a moment and you’ve missed it.

   I enjoyed this one, though. You may, too, if you allow your sense of humor to prevail. It won’t make much of any other kind of sense, but it’s still a movie that’s fun to watch.

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