Mystery movies


IMPACT. United Artists, 1949. Brian Donlevy, Ella Raines, Charles Coburn, Helen Walker, Anna May Wong, Mae Marsh, Tony Barrett. Co-screenwriters: Dorothy Reid & Jay Dratler. Director: Arthur Lubin.

   This one’s billed in most film references as noir, but on my own privately developed (and trademarked) Noir-ometer, I’d give it a 65 at best. To tell you the truth, though, what you get when you watch this movie is three movies in one, each lasting about 25 minutes.

   It’s the first third which is the most noirish, with a highly regarded plant manager (Donlevy) discovering that his wife (Helen Walker) is not the loving and faithful wife he thinks he to be. Avoiding a trap set to murder him and his pride hurt for being played for such a sucker, he ends up in a small town in Idaho, where he meets the new owner (Ella Raines) of an about to fail gas station.

   In a way the least noirish third of the movie, but maybe it isn’t, he finds that life in a quiet, almost idyllic small town, is not so bad after all. Especially when the attraction between the two continues to grow. But idylls don’t last forever, and when she learns his secret, she convinces him that he needs to go back to the big city (San Francisco) and face his day in court, both figuratively and literally.

   Leaving the final half hour of the film to be a rather ordinary detective mystery, chasing down witnesses and other clues, all of which is fine, to be sure, but I still found the ending to be disappointing, especially in comparison to what had come before. And I have to tell you, I found Miss Raines more of pleasure to watch in her garage service garb than I did seeing her all dressed up in the big city.

   

   Coming to Netflix on September 23. When I first heard about the project, I was intrigued. I thought it had possibilities. Now I’m not so sure:

ONE FOR THE MONEY. Lionsgate, 2012. Katherine Heigl (Stephanie Plum), Jason O’Mara (Joseph Morelli), Daniel Sunjata (Ranger), John Leguizamo, Sherri Shepherd, Debbie Reynolds. Based on the book by Janet Evanovich. Director: Julie Anne Robinson. Available on DVD and currently streaming on Amazon Prime.

   As everybody may already know, romance writer Janet Evanovich hit literary gold when she created New Jersey girl bounty hunter Stephanie Plum. There are now 27 in the series, the most recent being Fortune and Glory (2020), which I believe is the first without its number in the title.

   Besides the criminous side of the things, there is a continuing romantic triangle with both vice cop Joe Morelli and fellow bounty hunter Ranger striving for the hand, if not more, of the extremely fetching Stephanie – just the kind of thing that keeps the ladies coming back for more, and done in such a way that menfolk don’t find much to object to, either.

   In One for the Money, one of Stephanie’s first bounty hunting jobs – she is broke and needs the money – is to bring in Joe Morelli, who is accused of deliberately shooting a suspect who had no gun while doing a bust. It’s a weak story, admittedly, or perhaps a story weakly told, but I at least found the characters a whole lot of fun to watch. Not hilarious, as advertised, but fun.

   The movie was an absolute bust with both the critics and the box office, which has completely eliminated the possibility of any more Stephanie Plum movies being made. Other the other hand, I am not alone in liking this film. If she is to be believed, and quoting from Wikipedia, “author Janet Evanovich was delighted with how the film turned out and did some joint interviews with Heigl to promote the film. Evanovich stated that she would now envision Heigl as Stephanie when writing the character.” I’m delighted to be in such good company.

   

THE LADY CONFESSES. PRC, 1945. Mary Beth Hughes, Hugh Beaumont, Edmund MacDonald, Claudia Drake, Emmett Vogan. Director: Sam Newfield.

   Add this to a small list of mystery movies from the 1930s and 40s in which the detective on record is female and working on her own. When the wife of her fiancé Larry Craig (Hugh Beaumont) suddenly shows up after an unexplained absence of seven years, then even more suddenly is found murdered, it is up to Vicki McGuire (Mary Beth Hughes) to go undercover at the nightclub where Craig has an alibi.

   Everyone there will vouch for him, except for the owner, Lucky Brandon (Edmund MacDonald, as slick and sleazy looking as usual). When Lucky’s secret financial dealings with the dead woman are discovered, Vicki does her best to find out more.

   It really isn’t much of a story, and some of the loose ends are never tied up (to put it mildly), but both the photography and direction are above average for this level of B-movie, and it is fun to see a well motivated lady detective at work.

   
   

EARTHBOUND. 20th Century Fox, 1940. Warner Baxter, Andrea Leeds, Lynn Bari, Charley Grapewin, Henry Wilcoxon, Elizabeth Patterson. Director: Irving Pichel.

   This is one of those films in which after a person’s death, his ghost is forced to remain on earth until he somehow rights the wrongs committed by his murderer. The ghost this time around is that of Nick Desborough, Warner Baxter’s character, whose one offense he’s done on the earth is to have ab affair with Lynn Bari’s character while married to Adrea Leeds, who plays his wife.

   And he’s broken off the affair. Lynn Bari doesn’t take this lightly and pulls a gun on him. In the ensuing struggle, the gun goes off, and Baxter is dead. Bari’s husband (and Baxter’s business partner, played by Henry Wilcoxon) takes the blame, and according the one of the rules that ghosts have to play by, it is up to Baxter to exonerate him, even as the case goes to court.

   Charley Grapewin plays Baxter’s elderly and somewhat whimsical Bible-wielding mentor in this land of limbo he is in, but no matter much running around and talking to people that Baxter does, no one can hear him. One should think he would figure this out long before he does, but he perseveres, the real killer is determined, and eventually all is right in the world and beyond.

   I don’t know what you might think, but none of this made a lot of sense to me. The special effects are more than OK, however, making Warner Baxter quite transparent after his character dies and he must carry on in his new ghostly realm.

ROGUES GALLERY. PRC, 1944. Frank Jenks, Robin Raymond, H. B. Warner, Ray Walker, Davison Clark, Bob Homans. Director: Albert Herman.

   First of all, this movie has nothing to do with the radio show of the same title, the one starring Dick Powell as a tough guy PI by the name of Richard Rogue, which ran as a summer replacement show on NBC for three years, 1945, 46 and 47. Nor does the title have anything to do with movie itself, a happening which was all too common for Poverty Row movie productions such as this one back in the 40s.

   Robin Raymond may have gotten second billing in this one, but she’s really the star of the show. She plays a feisty young reporter named Patsy Clark, hellbent on always getting the big story on the next breaking story. Frank Jenks, her camera-toting partner in crime solving, is there only for comedy relief, as you probably realized as soon as you saw his name in the credits.

   At stake in this otherwise totally unremarkable exercise in detective-comedy movie making, is a device cooked up by a home-based inventor that can eavesdrop on any conversation anywhere in the world.

   Dead is one of the members of the board financing him, but whenever the cops are called in, the body always seems to disappear before they get there. Not once, but twice.

   Pretty ho-hum stuff, you might say, and you’d be right if you did. The mugging act that Jenks puts on gets tiresome after a very short while, but Robin Raymond, who built a career in movies and TV playing uncredited roles over a long period of time, is quite another matter. I used the word “feisty” before, and believe me, she takes no guff from anyone. The way he walks into a room with fast energetic strides,  her elbows pumping, made me smile every time she did.

   It’s curious what catches your attention in small all-but-unknown murder mysteries like this one. Maybe it’s because there’s no real point in following the story itself.

PostScript. I’m spelling the title as it’s shown on the screen, not as you see it on the poster and the newspaper ad.

   

NOTHING BUT THE NIGHT. Rank Film Distributors / Charlemagne Productions, UK, 1973. Christopher Lee (Colonel Bingham), Peter Cushing (Sir Mark Ashley), Diana Dors, Georgia Brown, Keith Barron, Gwyneth Strong. Based on the novel by John Blackburn. Director: Peter Sasdy.

   When Martin Edwards recently reviewed this movie on his blog, he praised it in part (“It’s fair to say that the whole is less than the sum of its considerable parts.”) but in part only. What caught my attention was how he did his best to talk around the actual plot of the movie without ever talking about exactly what kind of movie it is. Obviously he didn’t quite succeed because I tend to notice little things like that, and I wondered why.

   Well, now I know, and in my review in turn, I’m going to do the same exact thing. But if you know who John Blackburn, the author of the book the film was based on, and the kind of books he wrote, then you will know what it is that I’m going to do my best not to say.

   The story begins with a series of murders to various trustees of an orphanage located on a small island of the shore of Scotland. They all appear to be accidents or suicides, but we the viewer know better. But when a young girl who is also one of the orphans is involved in a bus accident later on begins to have unexplained nightmares and hallucinations, her doctor becomes suspicious. He calls upon his superior (Peter Cushing) for help, who in turn is abetted by a retired police officer (Christopher Lee) who has taken an interest in the case.

   Complicating matters is that the girl’s mother (a most floozy Diana Dors) wants back the custody of her child, and to that end, calls upon a lady journalist (Georgia Brown) for help. At which point a rather conventional murder story turns into … whatever it turns into, and in the most traditional way of telling such a story, and in the way the British seem to do it best.

   It’s a great cast, and the photography is excellent. The ending is suitably chilling, and it would be even more so if there were not so many holes in the plot. They can be ignored, but a tighter (and more realistic) hold on the story on the part of the screenwriter would have improved things immensely.

   It’s still a fun movie to watch, and I have Martin Edwards’ review of it to thank for having brought it to my attentions.

   

THE FATAL HOUR. Monogram Pictures, 1940. Mr. Wong #4. Boris Karloff (James Lee Wong), Marjorie Reynolds, Grant Withers, Charles Trowbridge, Frank Puglia, Craig Reynolds, Lita Chevret. Based on the “James Lee Wong” series in Collier’s Magazine written by Hugh Wiley. Director: William Nigh.

   When an undercover policeman and a good friend of Captain Bill Street of San Francisco Homicide is found murdered, it is his friend Mr. Wong who steps in and gives him all the help he needs to catch the killer. Spunky female reporter Bobbie Logan is also on hand, but she’s there mostly for eye appeal and doesn’t do much in the way of actual detective work.

   But since I’ve mentioned “detective work,” this is, I think, is one of the better B-movies in that regard that I’ve watched in a while. There are a lot of suspects crammed into a movie that is only about an hour long, and all of the plot points click off like clockwork. There is even a brand new invention involving a common home [Redacted] that’s part of the solution.

   To tell you the truth, Boris Karloff doesn’t look Chinese to me, but any movie that he appeared in was far better off than if he wasn’t, and The Fatal Hour is no exception. I haven’t seen one of these Mr. Wong movies since I was 15 or 16, and it’s only me who’s the worse for wear.

   

THE TRUTH ABOUT CHARLIE. Universal Pictures, 2002. Thandie Newton, Mark Wahlberg, Tim Robbins, Christine Boisson, Simon Abkarian, Charles Aznavour. Based on the film Charade (1963). Director and co-screenwriter: Jonathan Demme.

   There was a lot of talent involved in making this movie, but the end result certainly doesn’t show it. I came across this film by researching the credits of the leading female star, Thandie Newton, whom I most recently saw in the mini-series Rogue, which I recently reviewed here.

   She has the second-most undesirable task of playing the part that Audrey Hepburn played in the movie this one is a remake of, and I’m happy to saw that she does a creditable job of imitating the pixieish charm of Miss Hepburn. On a scale from one to a hundred, I’d give her a 60. Mark Wahlberg, however, displays — well, let’s put it this way. Cary Grant had more charm in the pinkie of his left hand than Mark Wahlberg shows in trying to follow in his predecessor’s most considerable footsteps.

   I know Wahlberg has gone on to bigger and better things, but at this stage of his career, he was out of his league. And Tim Robbins in Walter Matthau’s shoes? Not on your life, not ever.

   The story’s almost the same. A young woman who’s not been married long but is already thinking divorce comes home from a brief vacation to find the apartment they share all but empty and what furniture there still is destroyed. Turns out the man is dead, he had many many secrets, and many people want something — a fortune in diamonds that he had in his possession.

   All of the fancy camera doesn’t help a muddled and badly told story, and it often served to make me dizzy. This was a mess, through and through — there’s no better word to describe it — a film best avoided if possible, and I don’t say that lightly. The only reason I watched until the bitter end was to see Thandie Newton, whose name and fame does not match that of any of the others involved in this production, but it should.

PS. There is still the same fatal flaw in the plot that the first movie had, and if anyone wants to know, I’ll bring it up in the comments. That’s the one thing they could have improved upon in putting this remake together, and why they didn’t, I can’t possibly imagine.

   

I’LL NAME THE MURDERER. Puritan Pictures, 1936. Ralph Forbes, Marion Shilling, Malcolm MacGregor, James Guilfoyle, John W. Cowell, Wm. Norton Bailey, Agnes Anderson, Charlotte Barr-Smith, Mildred Claire. Director: Raymond K. Johnson.

   I certainly can’t stop you, but I’m going to tell you up front that I’m probably not going to say anything in this review that will encourage you one iota to see this movie. On the other hand, don’t get me wrong. Just because it’s another run-of-the-mill mystery movie made in the 30s by a film company you never heard of doesn’t mean that it’s a bad movie. Unless you’re like me, that is, and you can’t get enough of these slapdash mystery movies and only watch them for the sheer fun of doing so.

   Dead is a nightclub singer who, as it turns out, she has made a lot of enemies, and what’s worse, from the point of view of those trying to name the killer, there plenty of them in and around her dressing room where she was stabbed to death.

   Assisting them in their duty, whether they want his help or not, are a well-known gossip columnist (Ralph Forbes) and a lady photographer for the same paper (a cheerfully chipper Marion Shilling). Assisting them in turn is a PI named Joe Baron (James Guilfoyle), but in only an auxiliary role.

   At the basis of the victim’s death, or so it seems, is a batch of old love letters she’s using for a bit of blackmail, but this is more than a one-note samba. There is, as expected, more to it than that. The title of this film, by the way, comes from the fact that toward the end of it Tommy Tilton advertises in one of his daily columns that he’s far ahead of the police and will announce who the murderer is in the following day’s paper.

   All of the players were new to me. Some had long careers, however, and some not so long. For one of them, this was the only movie she was ever in. Among the others with short career was the very plain if not unattractive (shall we say) young woman who played Joe Baron’s secretary. She’s quick with a quip, hwever, and a sharp retort, and she caught my attention right away. She’s not in the credits, so I had to look her up on IMDb after the movie was over. Her name was Louise Keaton, and that may be enough to tell you whose younger sister she was.

   Little bits like this always makes movies like this one, worth watching.

   

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