Mystery movies

Reviewed by DAN STUMPF:         

THE SPIDER. Fox, 1945. Richard Conte, Faye Marlowe, Kurt Kreuger, Martin Kosleck, Mantan Moreland, Ann Savage. Written by Lowell Brentano, Anthony Coldeway, Irving Cumings Jr., Scott Darling, Jo Eisinger, Fulton Oursler and Ben Simkhovich. Directed by Robert D. Webb.

   No, I never heard of it either, but when I saw it on a cheap DVD at Cinevent and glommed that cast, I had to go for it.

   The Spider isn’t all that memorable, but it does offer a fine bunch of thespians trouping cheerfully through the banality. Conte is a sharp, wise-cracking PI, Faye Marlowe the mysterious female client who (as usual) is not what she seems, Mantan Moreland (in a bigger-than-usual part at a major studio) plays the comic-relief assistant, as only he can, and Ann Savage, that bitch-queen of the B-movies, is ideally cast as a vicious and venal double-crosser.

   There’s also a bit of effective New Orleans atmosphere (everyone seems to be sweating) and a neat red-herring turn by Martin Kosleck, but I’m afraid that’s where the film runs out of redeeming qualities.

   Spider is strictly a noir-by-rote, with perfunctory shadows, routine femmes fatales, a suave obvious killer, standard-issue PI and the thick cops typical of B-movies.

   There’s also a shadowy figure who seems to have nothing to do all day but follow Richard Conte around and kill whoever he talks to. Director Webb tries hard to make it look sinister, but the more we see of this dark presence, the more it looks like The Phantom Blot.

   Story? Well, Faye Marlowe has information that her missing sister may have been murdered, but the mysterious woman who holds the evidence wants her to have Richard Conte pick it up for her — don’t bother asking why, because the writers apparently never thought much about it. In time-honored tradition, the person with the vital clue dies before our hero can get it, leading to a chase around New Orleans (and the Fox backlot) with Marlowe, Conte and the shadowy killer constantly jockeying for position.

   Okay, The Spider isn’t a terrible film, and if you’re in the mood it can even be mildly entertaining. But the chief mystery for me was how it took eight (count’em) eight writers to stamp out such a boiler-plate story.

THE SPHINX. Monogram Pictures, 1933. Lionel Atwill, Sheila Terry, Theodore Newton, Paul Hurst, Luis Alberni, Robert Ellis. Director: Phil Rosen.

   If you’re a fan of Lionel Atwill, you’re sure to enjoy his sly and almost creepy performance as the deaf and dumb mastermind killer known as “The Sphinx” in this early, low budget crime film. If not, you may end up scratching your head when it’s over and asking yourself what on earth were they thinking?

   The gimmick is that after killing his latest stockbroker victim, the latest in a series of stockbroker victims, he walks up to the night watchman, asks him for a match and then what time it is. When the case goes to trial, an unimpeachable medical witness verifies that the accused killer can indeed neither speak nor hear, and he is obviously and immediately acquitted.

   Not believing the medical evidence for a minute is reporter Jack Burton (Theodore Newton), while his would-be girl friend Jerry Crane (Sheila Terry), the society and/or special features writer for the same paper, thinks Atwill is being unfairly persecuted. Well, one thing we know is that she will be in danger in way or another before the movie is over, and that in spite of their minor tiffs, the two lovers will be in each other’s arms when it is.

   That much is a given, and it’s about as much fun to wait and watch for both of these eventualities to occur as it always is, no snark intended. But the Sphinx’s modus operandi makes little sense, and he deserves to be caught as easily as he is, which you should also take as a given.

   But Lionel Atwood’s performance is worth a watch. Even if he has no dialogue for most of the movie, his body language, eye movement and the muscles in his face are so finally tuned they deserve an award in themselves, even if there’s category they would fit into.

NOTE: For a re-evaluation of the story line on my part, be sure to read Comment #3.


ON TRIAL. Essanay Film Co., 1917 James Young, Barbara Castleton, Sydney Ainsworth, Patrick Calhoun, Little Mary McAlister. Assistant director: W. S. Van Dyke. Director: James Young. Shown at Cinefest 18, Liverpool NY, March 1998.

   A melodrama with a suspenseful courtroom climax; the sharp print was struck from an original 35mm nitrate negative. Robert Strickland (Sydney Ainsworth) confesses to the murder of Gerald Trask (James Young) and refuses to defend himself on the stand. Adroit cross-examinations by his lawyer of Strickland’s wife and young daughter arouses sufficient doubt in the minds of the jury for them to quickly reach an 11 to one verdict to acquit, but the adroit holdout convinces them that although Strickland may not be a murderer he is undoubtedly a thief.

   They request that Trask’s secretary Glover (Patrick Calhoun) be recalled for questioning and in a tense, effective sequence, the calm, self-assured Glover is shown to be both the actual murderer and the thief.

   The acting style of the women is considerably more extravagant than that of the men, and reminded me somewhat of Theda Bara’s style. The person who introduced the film theorized that Van Dyke might in fact have been responsible for much of the direction.

   The film is certainly superbly controlled and paced, and the attention paid to small details, like the way Glover preens when he is called back to the stand and the characterization of secondary players during the trial is impressive. The director has the ability to integrate this detail with the suspenseful main narrative in a way that is quite striking.

DEATH FLIES EAST. Columbia Pictures, 1935. Conrad Nagel, Florence Rice, Raymond Walburn, Geneva Mitchell, Robert Allen, Oscar Apfel, Miki Morita. Based on a story by Philip Wylie (American Magazine, July 1934). Director: Phil Rosen.

   A neat if not overly sophisticated murder mystery that takes place on an airplane heading for New York City from California. Dead is a police detective, found slumped in his seat, poisoned. Most of the passengers appear to be ordinary businessmen, plus one deaf woman who is on board primary for comic relief — she can’t hear a word anyone says.

   But also on board is Evelyn Vail (Florence Rice), a nurse and a recent parolee from prison — convicted of complicity in another poisoning case. But she has a definite reason for being on the plane: a convict on death row at Sing Sing can confess to the killing, if only she can get there in time.

   More. A gentle suave gentleman (Conrad Nagel) who sits across the aisle from her and assist her is taking a secret formula to Washington, and he takes the small briefcase he is carrying it in everywhere he goes.

   Everyone appears innocent enough until the murder occurs. Then everyone begins to look suspicious, thanks to some decent writing and even better camera work. A minor film, but an enjoyable one. I only wish I had a better copy, but who restores old, unknown movies like this one?

Reviewed by DAVID VINEYARD:          

DIXIE RAY HOLLYWOOD STAR Coventry Productions, 1983. Also released in an R-rated version by Lima Productions as It’s Called Murder, Baby. John Leslie, Lisa de Leeuw, Juliet Anderson, Veronica Hart, Kelly Nicholls, Chris Warfield, Steve Marlow. Guest appearances: Cameron Mitchell and Tom Reece. Screenplay: Dean Rogers. Director: Anhony Spinelli.

   A man walks up a narrow flight of stairs in an older building. He walks down a long corridor and enters an office. We see shadows against a cloudy window, a man and a woman. There is shouting and a shot rings out.

   Cut to the door. Nick Popolopolis Private Investigations is painted on the door. Inside in the shadow behind his desk is the man (John Leslie) we saw earlier. He is seen only in the shadows of the blinds on the window and the cigarette he lights. Two more men enter and he turns on the lights.

   They are the Lieutenant, plain clothes cop Cameron Mitchell and his partner Tom Reece. The dialogue establishes it is the 1940‘s. Guadalcanal has just fallen, they tell Nick, who Mitchell calls The Greek. Nick has other problems. the Lt. picks up Nick’s gun and smells the barrel. He passes it to Reece who does the same. “You been playing with it?” Mitchell asks.

   Nick nods toward a dark corner and for the first time we and Mitchell and Reece see the body of a woman.

   This could be almost any noirish private eye tale set in the forties, it has the atmosphere, the look, even the music is right.

   It’s not just any noir tale of a cynical private eye. John Leslie is a major adult film star of the era, and this film is hard core pornography. Not R, not NR, not NC17. Dixie Ray Hollywood Star is triple XXX hard core porn.

   It is also a surprisingly effective noirish private eye tale told in flashback by a wisecracking world-weary private eye with a streak of conscience that just won’t let him turn his back on murder.

   The corpse is Adrian (Juliet Anderson) who showed up earlier in the day at Nick’s office. Her friend and employer as well as lesbian lover is one-time big movie star Dixie Ray (Lisa de Leeuw, a busty star with flame red hair), who married and lives now at a beach side mansion with her grown daughter.

   Leslie’s Nick is the usual eye of the era, but with a touch of something more. He’s randy and seduces every woman he meets, but he has half a heart and soul. He wishes he was fighting the war and not playing at private eye. He wishes he was in the furniture business and not a detective. Of course he’s not so guilty he doesn’t sleep with his secretary Sherry (Veronica Hart) who is leaving him to be closer to her husband’s army camp.

   Dixie Ray’s husband, Charles Barkley (Chris Warfield) owed money and paid off with nude pictures of his wife. She got them back with the help of illegal casino owner Tony LaMarr (Steve Marlow), but now someone still has prints they are blackmailing her for. She doesn’t have the money and she wants the pictures back.

   Nick eventually unravels the truth, but he knows it is futile. This is Hollywood, and money will buy a friendly verdict and murder will go unpunished.

Lieutenant: Relax Nick, you aren’t going to save the world.

Nick: Somebody has to. Maybe its me. Nobody else gives a damn.

Lieutenant: You weren’t listening, Nick. Some of us do.

Nick: Yeah, I know.

   The Lieutenant and his partner leave to make their arrest, and Nick stays behind to wait for the meat wagon to carry away Anderson’s body.

Nick to Reece: Say, you say we took Guadalcanal?

Reece: Yeah.

Nick: Wish I was with them.

Reece: Me too. [pause] See ya around, Nick. See ya at the movies.

   Yes, this is porn, it is explicit every other scene hard core porn. But it is also a good little mystery. A solid little noir outing with John Leslie giving a bravura performance as Nick Popodopolis. The sets and the few exteriors and classic cars are all perfect, the clothes right, and anachronisms are studiously avoided.

   No one had to put this much effort into this film. A string of barely cogent scenes and the usual bad acting and worse dialogue would have been enough. Porn chic was dead and video was about to deteriorate what originality the genre had earlier.

   But they did make this. And it is far better than what it is. You could easily cut the sex scenes and have a short but very good little noir private eye outing. No matter what else you come away with here you will be impressed with Leslie as Popodopolis.

   He was always one of the genre’s better actors, but here he is so much more. He may not be Bogart or Dick Powell, but I’ve seen much worse eyes in legitimate films, and in Nick Popodopolis he creates a very real private eye who wouldn’t have to be embarrassed to be in the company of Sam Spade, Philip Malowe, or Mike Hammer.

Reviewed by MIKE TOONEY:

SHERLOCK, JR. Buster Keaton Productions, 1924, 45 minutes. Buster Keaton, Kathryn McGuire, Joe Keaton, Erwin Connelly, Ward Crane. Writers: Clyde Bruckman, Jean C. Havez, Joe Mitchell. Director: Buster Keaton.

   For silent film aficionados Charlie Chaplin is the ne plus ultra of comedians. Certainly Chaplin had a wide emotional range which he was able to exploit at every turn; with him, slapstick humor and pathos — if not bathos — could be only a few frames apart. There is no denying Charlie Chaplin’s talent.

   For this silent film enthusiast, however, Buster Keaton is still my favorite comedian of the era. No knock against Chaplin, but there is something irreducibly American about Keaton, especially in his boundless enthusiasm and unquenchable energy in accomplishing his goals. If a situation seemed hopeless, Keaton would simply redouble his efforts and win out in the end — no defeatism for Buster. For him, the most intractable problems would always involve women in some way — and thus has it ever been with men.

   Buster Keaton didn’t have that wide emotional range that Chaplin possessed, but he didn’t really need it. In fact, he eschewed facial emotions, leading to his nickname “The Great Stone Face.” Keeping a dead pan regardless of the situation, Buster was still able to convey exactly what he should be feeling at any given moment. Now that’s talent!

    Sherlock, Jr. is one of Keaton’s best efforts. In it he plays a film projector operator whose dreams mirror his real-life anxieties, so you shouldn’t think that the movie is simply a shallow comedy. As Dan Callahan writes:

    “With Sherlock Jr, he [Keaton] came up with a haunting little meditation on movies and dreams. Projectionist Buster falls asleep at the controls and dreams that he can enter the film he is unreeling. With a series of ingenious visual effects, Keaton gives us a perfect demonstration of what it would be like to climb up onto a screen and become a part of the movie we are watching. It’s an unforgettable scene. Without self-consciousness, Keaton brings home the wondrousness of the medium itself, submerging himself in the ocean of its superb and liquid unreality. When he steps onto the screen, he fulfills something in all of us.”

   It is within this framework of fantasy that Buster acts out some of his most inventive visual gags — falling in and out of the dream world of the film-within-a-film, pretending to be the suave supersleuth (more like James Bond, in fact) who nearly gets it from an explosive billiard ball, diving through a window in a tuxedo and coming up from the ground inside a woman’s dress, diving headfirst yet again through — yes, through — another human being, an exquisitely-timed descent hanging from a railroad crossing gate into a moving car (if you can, run that sequence in slow motion), a gag involving Buster all alone on a bicycle’s handle bars approaching a train that’s just about to pass a trestle, and another stunt in which he falls from a moving train (and during which, he learned years later, he actually broke his neck). It seems that one of Buster’s favorite gag props was trains; he also used them to good effect in The General.

   No two ways about it: Buster Keaton was a comic film genius.

Reviewed by DAN STUMPF:         

DOROTHY B. HUGHES – In a Lonely Place. Duell Sloan & Pearce, hardcover, 1947. Pocket #587, paperback, 1949; Bantam, paperback, 1979; Carroll & Graf, paperback, 1984. Feminist Press, softcover, 2003.

IN A LONELY PLACE. Columbia, 1950. Humphrey Bogart, Gloria Grahame, Frank Lovejoy, Jeff Donnell, Martha Stewart (no, not that Martha Stewart), Robert Warwick. Screenplay by Andrew Solt and Edmund H. North, based on the novel by Dorothy B. Hughes. Directed by Nicholas Ray.

   A terse, gripping and effectively-written novel, but perhaps too well done to be much fun. The story is told from the third-person POV of Dixon Steele, a would-be gentleman of leisure living off the generosity and gullibility of friends and relatives who think he’s working on a novel. Steele is a confirmed misogynist, but to be fair, he’s also a misanthrope with a dim view of his fellow men and the society that demands he work for a living.

   It’s hard to stick with a character like this very long, but Hughes does an excellent job of trapping us in his psyche, revealing little by little just how sick and self-absorbed he is. Meanwhile we see him hooking up with an old war buddy who is now an L. A. police detective and romancing a neighbor lady, Laurel Gray. We also learn that there has been series of stranglings in the area — and Dix is the killer.

   The killings are neatly conveyed, with Hughes telling us just enough about each one to impart a sense of brutality and horror without getting unpleasantly graphic. But it’s the characterizations that make the story work, not only Steele’s but also his cop-buddy, the buddy’s wife, and especially the neighbor-lady; Laurel Gray is a perfectly-realized character: intelligent, independent and just bitchy enough to seem real.

   And if the book as a whole left me a bit down and creepy-feeling, I still have to say it was wonderfully done, as we watch Steele’s hunter/hunted game with women (hunter) and the Law (hunted) draw to an end we knew was coming but couldn’t look away from.

   In 1950 Columbia took the title and the character names and made a film out of them, discarding most of the rest. And a damnfine film they made, too, though lovers of the book must have been somewhat dazed and confused by it.

   Here, Dixon Steele is a conscientious Hollywood screenwriter who hasn’t had a hit since before the war, in a town where you’re only as good as your last movie. He’s also subject to what we might nowadays call PTSD, prone to heavy drinking and fits of violence. Given a chance to adapt a trashy best-seller for the movies, he finds a hat-check girl who has read and loved it (“It’s what I call a epic!”) and takes her to his apartment to tell him the story so he won’t have to read it.

   Thus when she turns up strangled the next day, he’s the logical suspect. He’s tentatively cleared by the luscious neighbor-lady (Gloria Grahame in one of her best roles ever) but as they begin a relationship, she’s nagged by suspicions that he may be the killer after all — an opinion shared by the LAPD.

   So you’ve got the characters, the locale and a strangling carried over from the book, but that’s about it. In fact there’s an eerie echo-chamber effect in a movie that has nothing to do with the book it’s based on, where the main character writes a screenplay that has nothing to do with the book he’s supposedly adapting. Unintentional no doubt, but it still packs a certain resonance.

   And that’s about it for the film too, as we get as rather uneventful hour or so of Laurel and Dix falling in love, Dix throwing getting more violent, Laurel growing afraid and the cops getting more suspicious. No chases, tense walks in the fog or suspenseful cat-and-mouse, but it does convey a sense of edgy melancholy that evokes Hollywood wonderfully.

   Nicholas Ray’s fine eye for setting a scene and his fluid camera literally keep things moving, and the leisurely pace left me totally unprepared for a fast and unforgettable climax unlike any other. In a Lonely Place could be a lot slower and twice as long, and it’d still be worth sitting through just for the wrap-up.

   By the way, you can read a lot of gossipy trivia about the making of this film — director Ray and star Grahame were married when the movie started filming, but not when it finished — but my favorite bit involves Robert Warwick playing a faded, boozy has-been actor. Warwick himself was a star of the silent films and on Broadway, where, at the height of his fame, he took time to encourage a struggling and not-very-good young actor named Humphrey Bogart. Bogart never forgot his kindness and repaid him with this small but juicy part.

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