Mystery movies


THE WOMAN IN GREEN. Universal Pictures, 1945. Basil Rathbone, Nigel Bruce, Hillary Brooke, Henry Daniell, Paul Cavanagh, Matthew Boulton. Screenplay by Bertram Millhauser, based on characters created by Arthur Conan Doyle. Director: Roy William Neill.

   Forget the title, which as it turns out has little relation to the story, and just appreciate the movie. For this entry in the Sherlock Holmes film series in which Basil Rathbone portrayed the famed sleuth is an altogether enjoyable movie watching experience, even if the crimes referenced to in this film are particularly grisly.

   Directed by Roy William Neill, The Woman in Green has it all: a series of unsolved murders, hypnosis, a formidable villain in Professor Moriarty (Henry Daniell), and naturally for this Holmes film series, a bumbling, but ever-so-charming Dr. Watson portrayed by Nigel Bruce.

   The story, as it turns out, isn’t nearly as interesting as it might have been. In many ways, the setup is far more formidable than the eventual payoff (no spoilers here). But that doesn’t end up mattering, as it’s the characters and the dialogue that propel the movie forward. Seeing Holmes and Watson in action, not to mention Holmes facing off against Moriarty, is a sheer delight.

   But back to the plot: Scotland Yard is baffled by what they’ve encountered; namely, a series of brutal Jack the Ripper style murders all over London. Making matters worse – and far more grotesque – is the fact that all of the victims have had one finger severed. Who took the fingers? And who committed these horrific crimes?

   That’s where Holmes comes in. From the get go, he thinks that the authorities aren’t necessarily dealing with Jack the Ripper Part II, but that there’s something even more nefarious going on. But what could it be? And what is Moriarty’s role in all this, especially given that he was presumed dead? All I can say is, tune in to find out!

Movie Commentary by Walter Albert

   One of the most phenomenally successful versions of the mad killer roaming about in a gothic mansion on a stormy night is the Mary Roberts Rinehart / Avery Hopwood play The Bat. I don’t recall any version of that turning up at a Saturday afternoon matinee in my nonage, but I know of at least two film versions that precede my first matinee at the Bijou, a 1926 silent version, and a 1930 sound version, retitled The Bat Whispers.

   At an early stage in my mystery reading addiction, I was a great fan of Rinehart (especially of the delightful spunky spinster series featuring Miss Letitia Carberry), but I did not then encounter an errant bat.

   However, on a recent evening I turned out with a number of other “Friends of the Library” for a Mary Roberts Rinehart evening in the University of Pittsburgh’s Hillman Library, of which an announced feature was to be a showing of an unidentified film version of The Bat.

   A call to the program coordinator would probably have cleared up the mystery, but I preferred to be kept in suspense, hoping against hope that it would be one of the early versions. My wife and I arrived in time to tour the collection of manuscripts, books, correspondence and other items on display from the library’s extensive Rinehart Archives, and I was delighted to find on display (but attracting no interest from the other friends) a number of original Howard Chandler Christy oils illustrating some of Rinehart’s early stories.

   They all featured dashing gentlemen in evening dress in close proximity to handsome ladies with elaborate hairdos and evening dresses that swept to the floor, all rendered in atmospheric browns and yellows, with only an occasional luminous, bloody red to suggest the criminal stories they had accompanied. This whetted my appetite for an unsettling film and it was with great anticipation that we sat in comfortable armchairs in a conference room improvised as a screening room and waited for the title and credits to flash on the screen.

   You have probably anticipated the disappointment that awaited me. The friends of the library and staff are not film buffs, and what they` had rented for our evening’s pleasure was a 1959 version made for ABC-Television, written and directed by Crane Wilbur, and starring Agnes Moorhead and Vincent Price, as spunky spinster and suspicious doctor with a penchant for experimenting on bats.

   The dialogue was awful, the budget was obviously minuscule and the movie was shot on a soundstage with a raging forest fire and exterior view of the country mansion so patently false that there was-some laughter from the audience. The saving grace was that, although the setting was rural contemporary, the film was shot in black-and-white.

   The interior of the “old” house had secret passages and dimly lit corridors that favored the action, and Moorhead was an enormously appealing spinster who, at intervals, gave some hint of the performance she might have delivered with the right materials.

   The script required that she be both a paragon of independence and a helpless female often trailed by a bevy of younger but not necessarily more attractive women while a series of suspicious male characters were alternately presented as defenders and threats.

   The last 30 seconds were beautifully handled and this was the conclusion that should have capped a brilliant rendition of the classic narrative. I have not lost my taste for such fare but it will not, I fear, be soon or well satisfied.

— Reprinted from The MYSTERY FANcier, Vol. 8, No. 2, March-April 1984.

NOTE:   Part One of this two-part essay can be found here. Even if you read it earlier, you might wish to take another look, as several comments may have been added since your previous visit.

Reviewed by DAVID VINEYARD:         

THE LONE WOLF RETURNS. Columbia Pictures, 1935. Melvyn Douglas, Gail Patrick, Tala Birel, Henry Mollinson, Thurston Hall, Douglas Dumbrille, Raymond Walburn Screenplay Joseph Krumgold, Lionel Houser, Bruce Manning. Characters created by Louis Joseph Vance. Directed by Roy William Neill.

ARSENE LUPIN RETURNS. MGM, 1938. Melvyn Douglas, Virginia Bruce, Warren William, John Halliday, Nat Pendleton, Monty Woolley, E. E. Clive, George Zucco, Vladimir Skoloff, Ian Wolfe, Tully Marshall. Screenplay by Howard Emmett Rogers, James Kevin McGuinness, George Harmon Coxe based on their story. Character created by Maurice Leblanc. Directed by George Fitzmaurice. (*)

   You can be forgiven if these two films leave you more than a bit confused when it comes to gentleman cracksmen since both films feature perpetual second lead, Melvyn Douglas as the questionably reformed title hero making yet another foray into crime and detection. In The Lone Wolf Returns he is reformed jewel thief Michael Lanyard, a Parisian-born American jewel thief who famously changed his ways for the love of a woman. The back story for his adventures dated to the silent era where actors like Jack Holt played him, and indeed this 1936 outing is a remake of the 1926 film.

   The plot is simple here; Lanyard, retired in America, is lured out of retirement by a fabulous emerald owned by Gail Patrick while under the watchful and distrustful eye of Inspector Crane (Thurston Hall, who would remain a regular in that role in the Warren Williams Lone Wolf series that followed). Lanyard, easily the most easily unreformed and re-reformed crook in fiction, toys with taking the jewel, falls for the girl, and then falls afoul of a gang determined to use his skills to get the jewel for themselves. He isn’t called the Lone Wolf for nothing though, and he manages to foil the gang, rescue himself and the girl, and stay semi reformed, at least until the next film in the series.

   The Lone Wolf was the creation of Louis Joseph Vance, a popular American novelist whose work appeared in the early pulps and slicks of his day. He had a number of bestsellers, often as not works of romance, adventure, and crime, and continued the adventures of Michael Lanyard until his death adding a son and daughter of the Lone Wolf along the way.

   The Lone Wolf not only added a phrase to popular fiction with his name, he also managed to keep going through silent film, radio, talkies, and a syndicated television series, starring former film Saint, Louis Hayward, in which Lanyard had reformed enough to work as an insurance investigator — not that anyone was ever completely convinced of his reform, including Lanyard who had an eye for a shapely karat as well as an ankle.

   This well done outing features fine direction by Roy William Neill and a simple straightforward script that benefits from Douglas’s droll underplaying of the reformed crook. Even he never really seems sure until the last minute whether he is going to steal the jewel or not, and that helps.

   Despite the title The Lone Wolf Returns was the first of a new series and not a sequel, whereas Arsene Lupin Returns is a sequel to the 1934 film Arsene Lupin, which starred John Barrymore in the title role versus Inspector Ganimard in the person of Lionel Barrymore (one of only a handful of films they worked together in) and Karen Morley a shapely police agent.

   Whether a series was contemplated (another Lupin film Enter Arsene Lupin was made in 1944 with Charles Korvin), the notable cast of the first film was kept in mind and this time the brilliant Lupin is up against canny ex-FBI agent turned private detective, Steve Emerson (Warren William, shortly to be Michael Lanyard the Lone Wolf and himself a screen Perry Mason to confuse things more) in a Parisian adventure, though you would never know it by the accents.

   Emerson may be no match for Lupin, but he is far from the lunk-headed tecs usually pitted against the hero, enough so you could easily pull for him. His chief drawbacks are his assistant Nat Pendleton, and the authorities like Prefect of Police George Zucco and Monty Woolley who insist Arsene Lupin is dead and gone, lo these many years.

   Again there is a fabulous emerald, this time the property of Baron de Grissac (John Halliday) and adorning the bosom of the baron’s beautiful daughter Loraine (Virginia Bruce). Lupin is around as retired gentleman Rene Farrand, who Emerson suspects is far more than a bored gentleman farmer and indeed the notorious Arsene Lupin, and when an attempt is made on the jewel it begins to look as if Lupin is up to his old games.

   Created by French journalist Maurice Leblanc, Arsene Lupin had an even grander career than the Lone Wolf, with his adventures appearing in just about every form of media from newspaper serials to animated cartoons to this day. While he is not as well known as he once was in this country (he was President Theodore Roosevelt’s favorite detective), in the rest of the world he as been featured in countless reprints, pastiche (continued by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narjeac of Diabolique and Vertigo fame), film, television series, comic books, manga, animation (including the adventures of his grandson Lupin III in Japanese manga and anime as well as live action film), a 2004 film, and even a television series from the Philippines loosely based on his adventures.

   There is even a stylish animated series available on DVD and YouTube done in recent years known as Night Mask or Arsene Lupin. Most episodes of the stylish live action French television series from the 1970‘s can be watched on YouTube in French or sets purchased on line.

   Like most gentleman adventurers Lupin eventually becomes as much a crime solver as criminal, but unlike Michael Lanyard he never really makes much effort to reform. He enjoys being Arsene Lupin and thumbing his nose at police and crooks, rescuing ladies in distress, and distressing anyone who deserves it. He is the most unrepentant criminal in all fiction who still manages to be a good guy and not an antihero.

   Sad to say, for all its good qualities, Arsene Lupin Returns largely wastes Halliday, Zucco, and Woolley (in all fairness, it was an early role and they didn’t quite know what to do with Woolley yet). There isn’t a lot of suspense, Lupin will get the girl, save the jewel, and Emerson will take his defeat like a gentleman wishing Lupin, his rival for the girl, merrily on his way. The greatest pleasure is watching Douglas matched against William, a bit fairer battle than usual in this sort of film, though not as fair as a better script might have had it.

   Truth is, American film and media didn’t quite know how to handle Lupin. He isn’t deprived or depraved, he has no long sad story to tell, he chose to become a criminal because it was a good way to make money and have fun, and while he isn’t above avenging the wronged or pursuing evil he’s not really a Robin Hood. He goes to considerable length over his career to acquire the treasures of the Kings of France, and not for the public good. He is also very French, and his combination of ego, arrogance, and Gallic brio can be a bit hard on American audiences brought up on phlegmatic American and British heroes.

   Arsene Lupin Returns avoids that side of his personality, but because it does he is never quite Lupin, just as no one and nothing in the film is quite French.

   Still, you really should see both of these if possible. They are well done pictures with attractive casts and better than average performances, scripts, and direction. Douglas has considerable charm as does William, and both films are good examples of a kind of film Hollywood used to make effortlessly. If The Lone Wolf Returns is the slightly better picture, it is also the slightly less interesting one of the two. They really should be seen in tandem to appreciate them, though.

(*) I thought it worth noting both films had an actual mystery writer working on the screenplay. Bruce Manning co-wrote mysteries with his wife Gwen Bristow, and of course George Harmon Coxe who worked on Arsene Lupin Returns, was one of the Black Mask Boys creator of Flash Casey and Kent Murdock.

Movie Commentary by Walter Albert

   In French classical tragedy, a major “don’t” is the intrusion of the supernatural. One of classical tragedy’s less elevated offspring, the puzzle detective story, has kept to that tradition and it has always seemed to me that readers of detective fiction, in general, abhor a mixture of the “real” and the ghostly.

   However, I must confess that I am perhaps inordinately fond of a dash of the supernatural in a film or tale of detection and/or mystery. I don’t require that the spooks be dispelled by a rational explanation and I’m happy even if the threat is fake spookery as long as it keeps me in a state of shivery suspense for an hour or so.

   One of my favorite varieties of this kind of fiction/film is that of the menacing house in the country where a faceless (i.e., masked) horror keeps popping out of secret passageways and stretching out a fearsome claw from a panel over the heroine’s bed. I think I can trace my affinity to two sources: the thirties serials The Green Archer and The Iron Claw and a delightfully wacky 1939 version of the archetypical example of the genre, The Cat and the Canary, starring Bob Hope and Paulette Goddard (Paramount, 1939).

   Forty some years later, I remember with unabated delight the scary confrontation of hero and villain in a cobweb-bedecked passage. I haven’t seen it since then and perhaps it is just as well. I might be disappointed and, at my age, such disappointments can provide graceless coups de grace to pleasurable childhood memories.

   I did see, on television, the 1981 version directed by Hadley Metzger. The cast was decent (Wendy Hiller, Edward Fox, Wilfrid Hyde-White and Honor Blackman, among others) but the spooky old house was clean as a whistle, and no spider ever survived long enough on that pristine set to spin an atmospheric web or two in a dark corner (of which there were also depressingly few to be glimpsed). Atmosphere is crucial in this kind of film and the scrubbed-up, glossy technicolor versions just won’t do.

   (I might add that I have never seen the highly regarded silent version directed by Paul Lent and am glad to know that this particular pleasure lies in wait for me.)


— Reprinted from The MYSTERY FANcier, Vol. 8, No. 2, March-April 1984.

HALF A SINNER. Universal Pictures, 1940. Heather Angel, John King, Constance Collier, Walter Catlett, Clem Bevans, Henry Brandon. Based on a story by Dalton Trumbo. Director: Al Christie.

   What a pleasure it is to start watching a movie you know nothing about, only to discover that against all expectations you’re enjoying yourself immensely. And when that happens it’s also sometimes difficult to put into words what magic of movie-making it was that made a small visual treat as Half a Sinner such a pleasant way to spend on hour, or at 59 minutes, just a hair less.

   The players themselves were not stars then, nor did they ever become stars.. Heather Angel may be best remembered, at least in some circles, as Bulldog Drummond’s girl friend Phyllis Clavering in several of the former’s movie adventures, while John King is remembered in some quarters as Ace Drummond in the 1936 13-chapter serial (no relation, I don’t imagine). He was perhaps even better known as John “Dusty” King in a host of early 40s B-westerns.

   In any case, they certainly make a fine pair together in this definitely screwball mystery comedy in which Heather Angel plays a prim and proper schoolteacher who decides to kick up her heels one day, buy a nice dress and new hat, add some silk stockings and have some fun for a while.

   What she doesn’t expect is to end up stealing a car (trying to escape a wolf who’s really a small time gangster) that has (she discovers later) a corpse in the back seat. As she’s making a getaway, she’s flagged down by John King’s character, who decides to play along with her as the two of them try to elude both the police and the gang of crooks who stole the car in the first place.

   Of course the plot doesn’t make any sense, and the crooks are about as ineffectual as a gang of crooks could ever have been, but everybody in the fast-paced flim-flam of a movie plays it with all the gusto they’ve got. And it shows.

CONFIDENTIALLY YOURS. Films A2/Les Films du Carrosse/Soprofilms, 1983. France, 1983. Original title: Vivement dimanche! Also released as Finally, Sunday! Fanny Ardant, Jean-Louis Trintignant, Philippe Laudenbach, Philippe Morier-Genoud, Caroline Sihol, Georges Koulouris. Screenwriters: François Truffaut, Suzanne Schiffman, Jean Aurel, based on the novel The Long Saturday Night by Charles Williams. Director: François Truffaut.

   This was François Truffaut’s final film; he died soon after it was finished. Filmed in black and white, it was intended as an homage to fellow director, Alfred Hitchcock, but I suspect that close eyes watching would spot a sizable amount of other inspirational material.

   I’ve not read the novel in many years, so I’m relying on summaries of the book I’ve found online as well as my probably unreliable memory, but the novel goes something like this: A businessman returns from a duck hunting trip only to learn that a fellow member of the club has been shot and killed in the same area. He’s accused of the crime, since it is widely suspected that the man was having an affair with is wife. When she is also found murdered, he’s the one immediately accused of both crimes.

   It is only with the help of his very efficient secretary that he is able to clear himself, during the passage of one long tense Saturday night. (If I have any of this wrong, please do correct me.)

   The film follows the story very closely, at least as far as the outline goes that I’ve supplied you above. I don’t remember the book well enough to tell you whether the same person is the killer or not.

   Jean-Louis Trintignant plays the businessman, and while Fanny Ardant is his secretary, getting top billing, perhaps surprisingly but deservedly so. She steals the show from beginning to end: a slim, full-lipped, beautiful brunette who is constantly on the move: if not walking, then running (like a girl). She even looks ravishing in a trenchcoat, and there is an extremely good reason why she is wearing a trenchcoat.

   The book and the movie do diverge. The book was an out-and-out thriller. Although filmed in black and white, with lots of interesting camera angles, the movie is often played for humor if not comedy. The real estate broker and his secretary are always bickering. She is fired more than once, and if it were possible, she once says in exasperation that she would fire him.

   Of course we all know what it means when a man and a woman in a movie are constantly battling each other, even though they are nominally on the same side. Unfortunately the two leading players don’t seem to have all that much attraction to each other. He is 20 years older, she may be four to five inches taller.

   I enjoyed this one anyway, perhaps in a way because of the above, and I recommend it to you highly. I wish I could tell you that all of the loose ends are tied up at movie’s end, but since I watched the film with subtitles (quite small and often white on white), I found myself concentrating more on reading the words than following all of the action. I will tell you this. If I find the time to watch this movie again, I most certainly will. I will also start looking for any other films that Fanny Ardant may have made. What does that tell you?

Reviewed by DAVID VINEYARD:          

A PLACE OF ONE’S OWN. 1945. Margaret Lockwood, James Mason, Barbara Mullen, Dennis Price. Screenplay by Brock Williams and Osbert Sitwell, based on the latter’s novel. Directed by Bernard Knowles.

   This quiet little British film is both a ghost story and a murder mystery, but done in such a subtle civilized style minus any melodrama that you might miss that. You shouldn’t. It is a fine subtle film that features fine performances and a strong affecting story.

   James Mason and Barbara Mullen are the Smedhursts, an older couple, he retired from business, who move into a quiet home in the country where they hire Annette, Margaret Lockwood, as a companion who soon becomes like their daughter, and when young Dr. Selbie (Dennis Price) begins to woo her it seems as if all will live happily ever after, but there is something waiting for them that cannot be ignored.

   It seems their lovely home is haunted by the spirit of a young woman who was murdered, her death unsolved, and this restless spirit soon begins to influence Annette, who grows ill, and whose life is soon at stake unless hard headed pragmatic Mr. Smedhurst and young Dr. Selbie can lay the ghost and the murderer with a bit of detective work.

   It is hard to describe how charming and low key this film is, with Mason, at the time labeled the “man women loved to hate” for his sexy dangerous leads in films like The Man in Gray, The Wicked Lady, and The Seventh Veil, heavily made up against type as a practical aging middle class businessman who applies his level head to laying a ghost and saving a young woman. Everyone is good in the film, but it is Mason who carries the weight, and carries it effortlessly.

   This is a charming drama with more than a few touches of gentle humor, far from a thriller, and certainly not scary, but none the less a fine cinematic ghost story that manages to make the haunting quite real while never indulging in the usual trappings of the ghost story.

   A Place of One’s Own may be too low key for some, but I found it an intelligent and entertaining exercise in literate, well acted, and intelligent cinematic storytelling professionally and charmingly presented by all involved. Once you get into it this film will hold you effortlessly to the final scene.

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